Politics and the Bimah

Philadelphia-area synagogue’s plans to host DNC chairman draw scrutiny

July 13, 2012

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D., Fla.) is scheduled to appear in a Philadelphia-area synagogue Monday on behalf of the Obama for America campaign, fostering more concerns that Team Obama is engaging in a controversial and possibly illegal effort to win over Jewish voters from within their religious institutions.

Jewish Americans for Obama is slated to hold a campaign event Monday at the Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, a Philadelphia suburb. The synagogue is affiliated with the Jewish religion’s Reform movement, which is known for its progressive political activism.

The event will feature Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, as well as Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D., Pa.) and Democratic County Commissioner Josh Shapiro.

According to a copy of the invitation obtained by the Free Beacon, those interested in attending are urged to RSVP to Zach Billet, an Obama campaign field organizer and former Shapiro staffer. 

Keneseth Israel’s participation in an event hosted and organized by the Obama campaign appears to directly conflict with an IRS rule stating that nonprofit organizations, such as religious institutions, "are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office."

Synagogue officials maintain that the event is purely about informing its members, and that Wasserman Schultz will talk "about President Obama’s relationship with Israel."

"As a synagogue based in a large community, we’re trying to keep our community directly informed, not filtered through the media," said Rita Poley, director and curator of Keneseth Israel’s Temple Judea museum. "We invited the Democratic Party to have a meeting at the synagogue."

Synagogue officials have also reached out to the local affiliate of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), though a comparable event has yet to be scheduled, Poley said.

Asked if any congregants had expressed opposition to an Obama campaign event, Poley admitted that a small handful of members reached out to her.

"We only got a very few responses from people concerned we won’t hear from both sides," Poley said, explaining that the synagogue is "determined" to hold a Republican-slanted event "in a few weeks."

"We strongly believe in providing access to both sides and are determined" to do so, she said.

However, Philadelphia-based leaders of the RJC claimed that they had not been contacted by Keneseth Israel.

Scott Feigelstein, the RJC’s regional director, informed members earlier this week that a counter-event was not yet in the works, according to Lynne Kessler Lechter, a local RJC member.

"When one political party and candidate makes an appearance [at a synagogue], the opposing political party has already been provided ample time" to arrange its own event, said Lechter, who is actively involved at her own synagogue. "It does not appear that has happened in this case."

Lechter said that she was "quite perplexed" by the partisan nature of the event, particularly because, as a leader at her synagogue, "no such event would occur … or would be accepted at my own synagogue" without an ideological counterweight.

Other area synagogue leaders told the Free Beacon that they intentionally avoid holding political events so as not to jeopardize their nonprofit status.

"Lower Merion Synagogue does not host political candidates or events," said Gwen Horowitz, Executive Director of the Lower Merion Synagogue in Bala Cynwyd. "Although we do receive numerous requests to host such events throughout the year, we believe that our role is to provide a home for religious worship and spiritual growth, not political promotion."

Wasserman Schultz has come under fire in recent months for touting Obama’s policies during various speeches in synagogues across South Florida, a heavily Jewish area in a swing state viewed as critical to the president’s reelection effort.

Several liberal-leaning synagogues in the Florida area have come under scrutiny for hosting Wasserman Schultz, sparking controversy among those congregants who are offended by the politician’s partisan rhetoric.

In May, the Obama-aligned president of Miami’s Temple Israel refused to allow a prominent Republican congregant to rebut Wasserman Schultz’s remarks during a speech that was later cancelled. The battle prompted the congregant to quit the synagogue.

The Free Beacon later revealed that, during a board meeting in advance of Wasserman Schultz’s speech, Temple Israel members expressed reservations about giving the divisive political leader an unfiltered forum, concerns that were ultimately ignored.

Multiple sources have told the Free Beacon that the Obama campaign is intentionally targeting synagogues in a bid to shore up the Jewish vote.

Wasserman Schultz also spoke in May at Detroit synagogue Adat Shalom during an event hosted by the city’s Jewish Community Relations Council, a nonprofit advocacy group that is legally required to remain politically neutral.

The appearance raised red flags among some Detroit Jews.

Meanwhile, Wasserman Schultz and 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.