Bimah Brawl

Controversy grows over postponed appearance by Democratic chairman at Miami synagogue

May 30, 2012

A growing controversy over an appearance by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D., Fla.) at a liberal Miami synagogue has fractured South Florida’s large Jewish community and spawned concern that multiple area synagogues are jeopardizing their non-profit status by engaging in blatant pro-Obama advocacy.

The latest uproar began when the Obama-aligned president of Miami’s Temple Israel refused to allow a prominent Republican congregant to rebut Wasserman Schultz’s remarks. That prompted the congregant to quit the synagogue, which postponed the event.

It is not the only recent political controversy at a South Florida synagogue. Anti-Obama Jews were manhandled and removed from a highly politicized speech by Ambassador Susan Rice at the B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton earlier this month.

The multiple incidents have raised red flags among some of the region’s spiritual leaders, who worry that prominent liberal forces will continue to suppress viewpoints that are critical of President Obama’s record on Israel as the campaign season heats up.

"I see a trend here in South Florida where some synagogues of late are only presenting prominent speakers who represent partisan policy perspectives, and other points of view are silenced," Florida Rabbi Sam Intrada, a self-described lifelong Democrat, told the Free Beacon. "The liberal idea of pluralism is grossly lacking in these situations."

"This trend to keep out centrist, moderate, mainstream concerns about Israel and stifling discussion about them is very painful to me," he added, pointing out that "many people in these synagogues are troubled about the situation."

"I do not know who is applying pressure to prohibit such discussion, but it is a travesty," Intrada said.

Wasserman Schultz, known for her aggressive pro-Obama tactics, was originally scheduled to deliver a speech about Israel during a Shabbat service at Temple Israel, a self-described "progressive Reform congregation" that boasts a largely liberal membership.

Stanley Tate, a highly regarded philanthropist and Republican activist, objected to the presentation of a one-sided political speech about the Jewish state and proposed to offer a rebuttal.

Ben Kuehne, the synagogue’s Democrat-aligned president, refused to give Tate a platform, causing the wealthy member to resign from the temple and take a delegation of prominent members with him.

Kuehne, a Miami defense attorney who served as legal counsel to former Vice President Al Gore during the 2000 presidential election recount, is currently working as an Obama campaign surrogate, according to reports.

He told the Miami Herald last week that he is trying to do what is best for the synagogue, but his ties to the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign have provided fodder for his critics.

"He’s a big shot in the Democratic Party and has contributed to them," Tate told the Free Beacon.

Kuehne, who did not respond to a request for comment Friday because he was "in court most of the day," has donated more than $11,000 exclusively to Democrats since 2008.

His partisan history led Tate to wonder whether Kuehne intended for Wasserman Schultz’s speech to be a partisan, pro-Obama schmooze session. That might run afoul of government regulations preventing nonprofit religious institutions from endorsing politicians.

The synagogue is "absolutely" risking its 501(c)(3) status, Tate said, explaining that these speeches are an attempt by team Obama to prop up the Jewish vote. "The chairman of the Democratic Party won’t discuss politics? I’m saying this is political."

"What has been happening," Tate added, "is because of Obama’s position on Israel being better known among the Jewish community, they’ve lost a large number of people who voted for him last time."

Around 30 prominent synagogue members have also resigned their memberships, Tate said.

Temple Israel officially postponed the Wasserman Schultz speech after the scandal mushroomed late last week, according to a synagogue representative who said the congresswoman would be "invited to come back at a future time."

Wasserman Schultz, locals say, is a regular on the synagogue circuit. In addition to the now-postponed Temple Israel event, she has delivered speeches to at least two other South Florida Jewish institutions and is rumored to have more in the works.

Wasserman Schultz gave a speech to Reform Congregation Kol Ami Emanu-El in Plantation, Fla., during Rosh Hashana last year, according to a temple representative. She made an appearance at the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center in mid-April.

Sources present at the Aventura religious service say that it featured pro-Obama talking points and failed to offer an opposing viewpoint.

Wasserman Schultz "spent time talking about the Obama-Israel relationship," said Eytan Laor, a Miami resident who attends services at the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center. "This is an effort to reassure these [Jews] who are on the fence, who have concerns that [the president] is not a friend to Israel."

Wasserman Schultz told the crowd, "Behind closed doors, Israel has had no better friend then Barack Obama," Laor recalled.

The event prompted concerns that "the alternative side is not being given a chance to talk," Laor said. "There’s not really any debate allowed. The only ones allowed to speak are members of the administration."

Laor cited his unsuccessful months-long attempt to bring Rep. Allen West to the religious center for a discussion with Holocaust survivors.

The B’nai Torah debacle from earlier this month, however, is perhaps the most notable comingling of religion and politics.

During an event featuring Ambassador Susan Rice, a delegation of Jews, some of them elderly, were removed from the synagogue for balking at Rice’s pro-Obama politicking.

The senior leadership of B’nai Torah has long been tied to the upper echelons of team Obama and the Democratic Party.

The synagogue’s senior rabbi, David Steinhardt, is said to be an Obama booster and defender of his policies towards Israel.

B’nai Torah is also the spiritual home of Mark and Nancy Gilbert, who are closely tied to the White House and Wasserman Shultz and whose daughter is a Democratic National Committee staffer who posted a provocative photograph captioned "Jewbags" and "Jew Cash Money Team" on Facebook.

The Gilberts and the synagogue’s executive director did not respond to requests for comment.

Wasserman Schultz, meanwhile, was slated to speak Tuesday evening at Detroit synagogue Adat Shalom during an event hosted by the city’s Jewish Community Relations Council, a non-profit advocacy group that is required to remain politically neutral.

The appearance has already raised red flags among some Detroit Jews.

Wasserman Schultz and President Obama are reported to be on the outs due to the congresswoman’s abrasive political tactics and hiring of Dani Gilbert.

Wasserman Schultz hired Gilbert over the strong objections of team Obama’s senior staffers, according to the Tampa Independent Examiner.