Prayer and protest: LGBT synagogue resists Trump



Rabbi Yael Rapport of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Chelsea urges a Kentucky representative to oppose the repeal of DACA. Photo: Robert Tokanel.

Retired teacher Toby Levine was never politically active before the 2016 presidential election. But on August 31, she spent a sunny afternoon seated in front of four rainbow flags draped in the lobby of her synagogue in Chelsea, working on a stack of letters to her elected representatives in Albany, New York, and Washington, D.C.

One note urged politicians to defend Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, better known as DACA, which protects undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children from being deported. In another, she advocated fighting President Donald Trump’s proposed ban on transgender people serving in the military. In her last letter of the day, she asked New York Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand to push for fair tax reform, and she underlined the word “fair.”

Levine, who has lived in New York City her whole life, was on her second visit to Congregation Beit Simchat Torah’s weekly “Resistance! Calls and Cards” event, which sets aside time for congregants to contact their representatives about their political concerns in the Trump era.

“The day after the election, when I was totally shocked, I never believed that Trump would get in, I thought, ‘I have to do something, I can’t sit around and do nothing,’” she said. “And that’s truly what brought me here.”

Levine was one of many members of the historically LGBT synagogue on West 30th Street who felt called to action following the election. Senior Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum said the congregation, founded in 1973, believes “as much in prayer as we do in social activism.” In keeping with that tradition, the community came together in January to strategize responses to an election that left many of them feeling despondent.

“The idea was born to do something that would be introducing people to grassroots activism in a way that they could really embrace,” said event organizer and former Hillary Clinton campaign volunteer Sabrina Farber, 53.

Farber began hosting the weekly event in March with Gerald Goldhaber, 73, a member of the congregation who runs a research group and appears on CNN as an expert on safety communications. Goldhaber said he volunteered to provide a safe, personal way for the community to come together in protest, and that the event generally draws about 10 people per week.

“Some people can’t march, because they’re elderly for instance, but they want to do something,” he said. “And it’s not a charade, you are contributing and doing something. These people pay attention to the postcards and the phone calls.”

While public protest has a powerful legacy in historical movements, phone calls and letters can have an advantage in their ability to target specific issues, said Emily Ellsworth, author of “Call The Halls,” a popular guide for engaging elected representatives by phone.

Ellsworth said protests are, “incredibly messy,” in that they attract people with a number of views. “I don’t think you can really find a lot of moral authority. There’s all different types of people that go to these, and some of them have conflicting interests with each other,” she said.

Still, Kleinbaum, who was arrested along with 18 other rabbis protesting Trump’s travel ban in February, stressed that making phone calls and writing letters is just one of many actions the synagogue takes to fight for its vision of justice. Members of the congregation took buses to the Women’s March on Washington and recently joined a protest against the repeal of DACA.

“It’s not that a specific thing is safer or less confrontational, it’s rather that we’re providing all different ways to do two things,” she said. “One is to protest injustice, and the other is to model the vision of the world as we would like it.”

Manhattan-based writer Goldalee Katsanis-Semel said the chaotic nature of recent events like the violent white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va, made her hesitant to go to protests, but attending the calls and cards event and watching her community take action has helped her remain hopeful.

“It’s a very Jewish thing to have that in their emotional DNA,” she said of congregants fighting against injustice. “And being queer too, there’s no fatigue, it’s like, this is just what one is used to.”

Levine said she would keep coming back, because even her memories of unrest in the 1960s did not compare to what she felt was happening today.

“This is it,” she said. “There’s nothing for me that’s as strong as this. I think we will get through this, but meanwhile, there’s a lot more to go.”