Chabad of Poway Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein speaks to those gathered at the gravesite of Lori Kaye at El Camino Memorial Cemetery.
Chabad of Poway Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein speaks at gravesite of slain Lori Gilbert Kaye. In a White House visit, he praised President Trump as a “mensch par excellence.” Photo by Chris Stone

A week before the November 2018 election, 17 San Diego-area rabbis signed a letter denouncing Rep. Duncan Hunter‘s “fear mongering” attacks on the Palestinian ancestry of Christian opponent Ammar Campa-Najjar.

They said the Republican congressman’s swipes against the native San Diegan were “appeals to racism, bigotry and fear.”

Over the past month, President Trump has tweeted and said things about Muslim members of Congress that many saw in the same light — as racist. He also declared that American Jews who vote for Democrats were being “very disloyal to Jewish people and very disloyal to Israel.”

With rare exceptions, San Diego Jewish leaders made no public comment.

Starting in late July, Times of San Diego surveyed rabbis, lay leaders of congregations and service groups using a directory posted on the Jewish Federation of San Diego County website.

About 50 rabbis and other leaders were asked via email or website forms to comment on whether Trump’s tweets were racist and Rep. Ilhan Omar anti-Semitic for supporting the BDS movement (boycott-divestment-sanctions) against Israel.

Only nine responded on the record, mostly with variations of “we don’t do anything political.”

The local Anti-Defamation League followed the lead of its national director, Jonathan Greenblatt, who said: “The president is echoing the racist talking points of white nationalists and cynically using the Jewish people and the state of Israel as a shield to double down on his remarks.”

Tammy Gillies, ADL San Diego regional director, said it wasn’t for her to say whether Trump is a racist.

“But what I can say is that white supremacists and racists online are celebrating his comments, and his sentiment is a win for them and their ilk,” she said Monday via email, noting that comments telling people to “go back” to their countries of ancestry embrace racist tropes.

Gilles called on all elected leaders — “whether it be the president of the United States or the president of the local school board” — to swiftly condemn hatred and bigotry.

She joined with Greenblatt in decrying the “disloyal” allegation — recalling a 2015 ADL study that found more than 30% of the American public asserted that Jews “are more loyal to Israel than to America.”

“This type of language coming from the president is unacceptable and we believe he must apologize immediately,” she said, noting that Greenblatt sent this message to Trump moments after his remarks.

Regarding the Minnesota congresswoman, Gilles said: “ADL has spoken out several times with great concern and disappointment in reaction to anti-Semitic comments made by Rep. Omar. I can’t speak to what her intentions were in making these comments or what’s in her heart, but we can’t allow these issues to devolve into a political fight.”

Typical of other respondents, however, was Rabbi Mendel Goldstein of Chabad of Poway. He’s the 29-year-old son of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who lost an index finger in the April 27 shooting that killed longtime friend and congregant Lori Gilbert Kaye.

“As a rabbi, we don’t discuss politics at all,” Mendel said in an in-person interview. “We never take a side. We do our job as rabbis to care for our people and whatever it takes to teach Judaism and to help Judaism grow.”

Asked why his father, in an Oval Office visit, called Trump a “mensch par excellence” — a person of great integrity or honor — he said it was a “spur of the moment” remark.

“The whole speech itself was not prepared,” Mendel said. “It was straight from the heart.”

He gave Trump credit — despite “the whole world on his shoulders” — for “pushing everything aside for an individual who is going through some hard times.”

Times of San Diego read the young rabbi a series of quotes from national Jewish groups, columnists and the leadership of the Washington National Cathedral, which called Trump’s words “dangerous.”

“When does silence become complicity?” said its July 30 statement. “What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency, but of ours.”

Rabbi Mendel replied:

“Again, this is a question I’m not going to answer. … Everyone has their job. ADL has their job. … They do what they need to do to best act their position… As a rabbi, that’s not what we do. We take care of every Jew, do what we can to help them grow into Judaism and doing mitzvot and Torah.”

Statement of Democrats for Peace in the Middle East. (PDF)
Statement of Democrats for Peace in the Middle East. (PDF)

But Tuesday night, President Sheri J. Sachs and Vice President Larry Kornit of Carlsbad-based Democrats for Peace in the Middle East read a 340-word statement at a meeting of the county Democratic Party Central Committee.

It slammed Trump’s “disloyalty” remarks as an “unconscionable attack on the Jewish community and deeply divisive to Americans everywhere. …. [Our group] refuses to remain silent when any representative of the United States utilizes the Jewish community as political pawns.”

While avoiding the president’s name, a group of seven rabbis two weeks ago targeted Trump policies in an outdoor service overlooking Mission Bay.

They marked the Jewish day of mourning Tisha B’Av while holding signs made by T’ruah, the rabbinic human rights campaign — “Silence is akin to complicity” and “This is what Never Again looks like.”

San Diego Jewish World quoted Rabbi Yael Ridberg as saying: “We are called in 2019 to respond to the degradation of humanity by xenophobia and fear-mongering, and recognize the displacement of people from their homes toward what they believe is a promised land.”

In her Twitter feed, Ridberg hasn’t been shy about denouncing Trump.

“Go back to where you came from” is the epitome of #racism, #whitenationalism, and #xenophobia,” said the Congregation Dor Hadash spiritual leader. “From the man who brought us birtherism, anti-immigrant rhetoric, islamophobia, sexism, and homophobia.”

In sacred spaces, though, she dials back the language, saying she balances her outspokenness “with the educational and pastoral needs of the community.”

“He gets enough media attention,” said Ridberg, who was interviewed via Facebook chat before Trump’s remarks about disloyalty . “I’d rather focus on the issues and people that are impacted by the policies of this administration.”

Covering the Mission Bay service, Jewish World editor Donald H. Harrison wrote that a man in a Bernie Sanders hat wore a shirt that read: “Keep the immigrants; deport Trump.”

But Trump has many fans in the 100,000-population San Diego Jewish community, especially in Orthodox circles.

“I consider him more of a friend to Israel than any other president we’ve ever had,” says Steve Arnold, Chabad of Poway’s director of logistics and head of security. “I am pro-gun and very pro-Donald Trump,” he said, although he concedes, “I personally look at him as a bully.”

He told of a neighbor with a sign that said: “Trump 2020. KKK-approved.”

“I reached out and said, ‘Look, I will carry any sign that you want — ‘Trump’s a jerk, he’s an ass’ or anything,” Arnold said. “I’ll carry that sign if you get rid of the word KKK. Because all you’re doing is bringing in more attention to the anti-Semitism, which is not what we want.”

Arnold, who owned The Leather Factory furniture chain, is famed locally for his “Go see cow!!! Go see Cow!!!” TV commercials of the 1980s (a play on the “Go see Cal” Worthington auto dealer ads).

Today he spends time seeing congregants. (“I come here at 6:30 or 7 in the morning and go home (late). Last night I went home at 11:01,” he said in an early August visit.)

But he also sides with his rabbis.

“I try not to talk politics, and the reason why is that since 2016, more families have broken up because of politics,” Arnold said.

Michael Jeser, local Jewish Federation president and CEO, on Monday declined to answer specific questions but said: “Despite today’s hyper-polarized political climate, the Jewish Federation remains steadfast in our focus on achieving our mission of caring for Jews in need, strengthening Jewish identity, and connecting San Diego to Israel,” noting his group’s many current initiatives.

San Diego Rabbi Eddie Rosenberg said: “Our synagogue has diverse opinions about him, but they are mostly in favor of his support of Israel. As a congregation, we don’t do anything political. We pray for the government … even when we disagree with its actions.”

Rabbi Moishe Leider of Chabad of University City said: “We cannot get involved in political statements, but we do believe Trump is certainly not a racist. He is a great friend of Israel and the Jewish people and [Congresswoman] Omar is definitely an anti-Semite and foe of Israel. We cannot say more.”

Rabbi Baruch Ezagui of Chabad La Jolla said: “We generally don’t take a political position as that alienates a full half of the conversations’ potential. We must try to search for the good in all there is, sometimes calling out where things can be done better but mostly to inspire each other in our joint unified greatest goals.”

And Rabbi Zalman Carlebach of Chabad of Downtown said: “Our policy is not to talk and bring up politics, being both a social and religious organization.”

Chabad — an international Hasidic movement — hasn’t always been so apolitical, however.

“Chabad had been deeply involved in politics, taking quite radical positions for decades,” said Professor Dan Lainer-Vos of USC. “In Israel, Chabad is firmly associated with the right since the 1990s.”

He noted the 1996 elections that would yield a new prime minister.

“Chabad went all out in a massive campaign using the chauvinist slogan ‘Netanyahu! It is good for the Jews,’” he said via email. “This campaign helped to defeat Shimon Peres, who enjoyed a significant if eroding lead in the polls after [Yitzhak] Rabin’s murder.”

Since then, Lainer-Vos said, Chabad has played a key role in moving the ultra-Orthodox community to what he called the extreme right.

Orthodox Judaism is the only Jewish denomination in America where Republicans enjoy significant support, he said.

“The latest numbers I saw suggest that, even now, most Orthodox American Jews vote with the Democratic Party,” he said. “But among ultra-Orthodox sects like Chabad, I will not be surprised if the majority votes for the GOP and supports Trump.”

Wounded Rabbi Goldstein’s praise of Trump “is in line with that,” said the sociology professor.

Professor Kenneth Wald of the University of Florida said that while Chabad in America is not overtly political, it take cues from its guiding light, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

The Rebbe, as he is known, was involved in issues such as prayer in public schools, which he supported for both religious and sociological reasons, Wald said via email.

“But I would imagine that, like evangelicals, he would say that he was dealing with a moral rather than a political issue,” Wald said. “All the moral issues just happen to line up with Republican/conservative positions.”

In 2017, a Politico article titled “The Happy-Go-Lucky Jewish Group That Connects Trump and Putin” linked Chabad to the U.S. and Russian presidents and noted Chabad-goers such as Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and Felix Sater, a former Trump business partner.

“It’s not a surprise that Trump-minded people are involved with Chabad,” Jewish public relations executive Ronn Torossian told Politico. “Chabad is a place that tough, strong Jews feel comfortable. Chabad is a nonjudgmental place where people that are not traditional and not by-the-book feel comfortable.”

San Diego voting record of Chabad of Poway Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein.
San Diego voting record of Chabad of Poway Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein. (PDF)

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein wasn’t available for comment. His doctors advised him to take a break from his Poway duties amid symptoms of PTSD — and was staying with a Chabad friend in New York City, Arnold said in early August.

But according to his voting record, Goldstein, 58, was a registered Democrat locally from 2004 to 2014 — though he’s voted in only three of the 20 elections for which he’s been eligible — the 2004, 2008 and 2012 presidential contests.

He didn’t vote in the 2016 election that elevated Trump, according to public records from the San Diego County Registrar of Voters Office.

Less public are the reasons behind more liberal Jewish leaders not being vocal about the commander-in-chief.

Rabbi Ridberg of Congregation Dor Hadash in the Carmel Valley area is a relative outlier.

David Ogul, president of Tifereth Israel Congregation, has a degree in political science and was an assistant metropolitan editor at The San Diego Union-Tribune, where he worked a third of his 32-year journalism career.

He was asked: Is Trump a racist?

“OK, I’m not going to answer that one,” he said between laughs.

But the Conservative congregation’s lay leader called Trump a “genius of a politician, and I don’t think people give him enough credit for that.”

The reason many Jewish leaders should be hesitant to talk about Trump — or any political issue — is because their temples and synagogues are nonprofits, Ogul said.

Ogul noted the rarely enforced Johnson Amendment — the tax-code rule that bars clergy from endorsing or opposing political candidates (lest they risk losing nonprofit status).

Trump has boasted to evangelical groups that he “got rid” of the amendment, but it’s still on the books.

Ogul of the San Carlos congregation says he’ll obey it.

“Whether they are enforced or not — the Johnson Amendment should be enforced — we’re going to act like it is,” he said. “We’re not going to adhere only to laws we like.”

Ogul rejects characterizations of Trump supporters as white supremacists.

“We have a lot of conservative members of our synagogue…. who genuinely believe they want a more conservative judiciary, they want an economy with less regulations,” he said. “And I’m guessing that’s the reason why they voted for him.”

Like others, Ogul says a cleric calling the president of the United States a racist bigot would lead to half the people walking out, and “We’re trying to bring people together, not … divide them.”

“But if you read [Psalm 146], and you say that ‘God frees the bound, gives sight to the blind, raises those bowed down…. protects the stranger’ … nobody’s going to walk out. They’re going to say Hallelujah.”

The Rolando resident added: “I could get up there on the bema and … pontificate about what’s going on at the border, or I could read that. Which one’s going to have more impact?”

Rabbi Ben Leinow of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Carlsbad said he saw his responsibility as teaching members to learn and seek answers to difficult questions and actions.

“My suggestion would be for all Jews to reread the Torah portions of last few weeks, Deuteronomy 5 and 6,” he said. “In particular, any Jews who may also be one of our elected leaders should go to their rabbis and discuss the meaning of ‘Loving God with all of our might.’”

“We live in a difficult time,” Leinow said. “It is hard to come up with the ‘fit all’ answer in the midst of confusion. At this moment I believe that it is better to come up with an incorrect answer than no answer at all. We do learn from our mistakes. My answer is let everyone respond with love, and love that we can be different and still love one another.”

Emeritus Professor Lawrence “Laurie” Baron is an expert on modern Jewish history and one-time head of the Jewish Studies Program at San Diego State. He noted that Jewish Family Service has been one of the main groups in San Diego aiding immigrants and asylum-seekers detained on the border.

He cites polls finding that Trump is less popular with Jews as individuals than with any other religious group.

“At the national level, a number of major Jewish organizations have condemned his policies,” he said.

A member of synagogue Temple Emanu-El in Del Cerro, Baron said both his rabbis have denounced policies associated with Trump — “even though Trump himself is not named.”

“I know from conversations I’ve had with [Rabbi Devorah Marcus] that the reasons for not specifically attacking Trump are linked to abiding by the Johnson Amendment … and not offending congregation members who may support Trump or his agenda.”

“Nevertheless, a new volunteer group within our congregation (The Advocacy Committee) was formed the past year and has been involved in voter registration and organizing consciousness raising forums on several of the most disturbing aspects of Trump’s policies.”

Baron also thinks the hesitance to denounce Trump actions is to avoid jeopardizing federal grants temples receive for programs they administer.

“Polling indicates as you go across the denominational spectrum from Reform to Orthodox or Zionist spectrum from J Street, AIPAC, Stand with US and ZOA, support for Trump will increase with the level of religious traditionalism and uncritical support for Israel,” he said.

In a KPBS interview after the 17-rabbi letter on Hunter, Rabbi Marcus said: “If we don’t have the courage to speak out against hate speech when we see it, especially in such an important situation as this, … we lose our right to be upset when that hate speech is directed at us.”

She said Jewish prophets taught that the “smallest transgression, the smallest lie has to be addressed — and immediately.”

“We don’t want to live in a world or create a world where we become desensitized to the small injustices because that means large injustices become our new normal,” she said on “Midday Edition.” “Jewish tradition teaches that every word has weight.”

Marcus appeared on KPBS days after the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue massacre.

A May poll of 1,000 American Jews found that 59% considered Trump at least partly responsible for the shootings at Tree of Life and Poway.

What did Chabad of Poway Rabbi Mendel Goldstein think about that?

“I hope you do respect that, as rabbis, we don’t discuss politics,” he repeated.

But he went on to say: “Our job is to be strong. And if we are scared to walk outside, to show our pride as a Jew, that’s feeding into anti-Semitism. … And [we] want all Jews to know that they should continue strengthening their faith … [with] acts of kindness, and that is the greatest way of fighting against anti-Semitism.

“That’s the way we’re going to continue moving forward, stronger than ever before.”

Updated at 7 p.m. Aug. 29, 2019