Rabbi Michael Holzman doesn’t believe in separating the political and the spiritual. Over the last few years, he’s seen up close how the two mix inside his own Reform synagogue, the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston. And with a crowded Democratic presidential primary on the horizon, he suspects that the political will even grow in importance inside the synagogue’s walls.
So he was thrilled when, last week, the Northern Virginia synagogue won $15,000 from the Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom for its Rebuilding Democracy Project, which has fostered political discussion on contentious issues among congregants and brought in public policy experts as guest speakers.
“Were definitely aware that in 2020, or 5780, we’re thinking about the fact that partisanship and political vitriol will probably just be increasing as we get closer to the next presidential election,” Holzman said. “So this program will give us a way to deal with that … the pain around how we talk to each other and how we think about the future of our country. All these are important spiritual issues.”
While technically classified as a grant, the prize from the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah is actually a reward that can be used by the congregation as its board sees fit and may ultimately be deposited into the synagogue’s general fund. It’s a model that Holzman said he’d like to see more of when it comes to rewarding innovative programming at Jewish institutions. Rather than forcing Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation to justify the cost of a grant through new initiatives, the synagogue can simply continue what it’s been doing and possibly enlarge the program.
According to Holzman, the Rebuilding Democracy Project largely came out of conversations following the 2016 election.
“The people of the congregation who are on the right came to me expressing anxiety, feeling like they’d be excluded,” Holzman said. “I said, ‘No. That’s not the way we do things here.’ And I invited them to create this thing.”
Then, discussions following the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 students and teachers dead became a flashpoint. The synagogue was considering renting busses to get congregants to the March 2018 March for Our Lives.
But some congregants were strongly opposed to the message of the rally, where speakers called for tighter gun control.
“We have card-carrying members of the NRA at our congregation, so at that point it seemed like we had two choices. One is that the board votes and the minority loses and we move ahead with the busses. The other is we do nothing,” Holzman said. “We saw a third way and we created a congregational conversation as a way of giving the minority members of the congregation a way of being heard and respected.”
At a group discussion inside the synagogue, congregants on differing sides of the issue expressed their opinions with members of the board present. Ultimately, the decision of whether to rent the busses remained with the board, but pro-gun rights members got to voice their objections. According to Holzman, the discussion even changed the perspectives of some of the marchers.
In the end, the congregation decided to rent the busses so members could attend the march, but Holzman and others were so happy with how the discussion went, they figured the synagogue should have similar conversations more often. Since then, they’ve talked about civil rights, Israeli policies, the environment and more. Meanwhile, the congregation has brought in outside speakers to supplement the discussions. Guests have included Andrea Weiss, provost of Hebrew Union College, and political columnist William Kristol. Holzman has also led a group in interpreting important texts from American history as if they were theologically Jewish, and the synagogue has held interfaith educational events with the ADAMS Center mosque nearby.
“We are a Reform congregation and our politics are predictably to the left by and large,” Holzman said. “But the minority members of the congregation I’ve spoken to, what people care about the most is the recognition that, ‘My congregation includes me even if I’m in the political minority.’”
As he looks ahead to a long presidential primary and general election campaign, Holzman thinks that the norms for disagreeing the congregation has created within itself can get it through 2020 in one piece.
“We’ve established a certain set of values of pluralism; we’ve demonstrated it,” Holzman said. “So no matter what comes down the pike, if we stick to our values of inclusion, diversity of thought, respect — all these things that Judaism has been doing for thousands of years. As long as we keep living by those values, I’m confident.”