Rabbi Ron Shulman, clad in a flashy suit and wearing reading glasses, took to the lectern with a folded-up piece of paper to which he rarely needed to refer.
He might have forecasted the emotion that would soon accompany his words, drawing on similar sentiments the crowd shared.
A little more than a minute into his speech on Nov. 16 at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, where Shulman has served as senior rabbi for the last 12 years, he paused for a brief moment to collect his thoughts. Shulman expressed profound disappointment in citing Israel Shas chairman and Interior Minister Arye Deri’s excitement with the surprising election of Donald Trump as the United States’ 45th president.
“With the election of Donald Trump, the Messiah will be arriving,” Shulman said, referencing Deri’s words, “and the Messiah’s first task will not be world peace, solving hunger [or] healing the sick. The Messiah’s first task in the shadow of the election of Donald Trump will be to rid the world of Conservative and Reform Judaism.”
That statement elicited gasps from people throughout the audience, many of whom expressed great concerns about Trump, his vision for the United States and the anti-Semitic rhetoric that surrounded his campaign.
Those feelings of angst, doubt and uncertainty echoed throughout the packed room of more than 300 attendees for the final lecture in a four-part series entitled “Debate & Decision: Thinking about the Election with Jewish Values.”
Shulman and fellows Rabbis Daniel Burg of Beth Am Synagogue, Jay Goldstein of Beth Israel Congregation and Steve Schwartz of Beth El Congregation each reflected on the biggest lessons they learned throughout what many see as the most divisive election cycle in recent memory. They also fielded questions from attendees in a question-and-answer session moderated by Neil Rubin, a Jewish history teacher at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and the Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University.
Burg said he has many reservations about Trump, ranging from his perceived notion of the president-elect being xenophobe who will push anti-immigration policy and the white nationalist rhetoric he’s seen from Trump and his campaign.
While Burg noted Trump received votes for both “dastardly and pragmatic reasons,” he said it’s important to understand why people were willing to look past Trump’s shortcomings at the ballot box.
“[Trump is] a narcissist for God’s sake. He has to somehow fill that hole in him that pushes him to do things that he does,” Burg said. “I don’t accept that. We need to be responsible for our actions and for our words. He has said and done some pretty terrible things.”
Some feel Trump gave a true voice to those who have become fed up with the political establishment since he himself is an outsider with no public office experience.
It wasn’t about the fancy language or worry about political correctness, but rather that Trump presented a message that it is time for the government to work for the people, not the reverse, others said.
Schwartz, senior rabbi at Beth El, said it is the responsibility of a community to have institutions that will care for the poor, marginalized and the underprivileged.
For Schwartz, Jewish values will be more important than ever in the next few years. Citing the Torah, Schwartz said it’s his interpretation that abortion and access to affordable health care should be provided to all, which starkly contrasts from the views Trump has taken on those two hot-button social issues.
“My general reading of the Torah is that is a progressive-reading document,” Schwartz said. “In my view, it is that social agenda.”
Goldstein, meanwhile, said he had a tough time taking Trump seriously in large part because of the unprecedented, polarizing fashion in which he ran his campaign.
With Trump set to get inaugurated on Jan. 20, Goldstein said he hopes and prays that the nation’s next commander-in-chief will take his new responsibility with the upmost care and respect.
In the meantime, Goldstein said, he will continue to search for answers as to how to move on from such a stunning result.
“We are here to try to figure out how to convert our mourning into meaning,” Goldstein said. “The obligation for Jews is to keep our Jewish principles clear and strive to be a mensch and have the strength to continue going forward.”
At a time when Shulman believes the country is as fractured as it was after the end of the Civil War more than 150 years ago, he feels the best way to move forward is with vigilance.
“We have to stand up, stand up for civil liberties of all Americans,” Shulman said. “That’s what we do as Jews.”