U.S. Rep. Deborah Wasserman Schultz, the Florida Democrat who serves at the helm of the Democratic National Committee and is considered President Barack Obama's most prominent Jewish surrogate, is slated to stump for the president at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park next week.Also slated to speak locally on July 16 are U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, the Pennsylvania congresswoman whose district covers parts of Montgomery County and Philadelphia, and Josh Shapiro, a Montgomery County commissioner.
As the election season intensifies, Wasserman's appearance is one of many slated in the Jewish community focusing on the president's record and featuring prominent national figures. Keneseth Israel has stated that it plans to hold a separate program at some point featuring a representative of the presumptive Republican candidate, Mitt Romney.
The event also raises the perennial issue of just how well shuls and politics mix. Synagogues have to balance the desire to educate their members with the danger that hosting a candidate could be perceived as a tacit endorsement, which could violate their status as tax-exempt institutions.
One question often asked is whether each program at a synagogue needs to be balanced
or if it's OK to aim for balance over the course of an election season.
While the Keneseth Israel program doesn't seem to have stirred nearly the same level of controversy as the canceled Miami appearance did — or other local synagogue brouhahas in the past — at least one group isn't happy it's taking place: the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Scott Feigelstein, director of RJC's Philadelphia chapter, said, "This is laying it right out there that the program is in support of Obama. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is the titular party head and anything she says is going to be blatantly partisan."
Feigelstein said it's not good enough to have a Republican speaker at another time, that the synagogue should have someone rebut Wasserman's message on the same night. (Feigelstein said he won't be at the event; he's expected to be out of town.)
Rabbi Lance Sussman, Keneseth Israel's religious leader, said he believes the community is better served by hearing from opposing sides on different days rather than have two speakers engage in a shouting match. He said synagogue leaders are still working to find a suitable GOP speaker and have asked Feigelstein for help.
"We are not endorsing either side," said Sussman. "We are providing a venue for both sides, and hopefully, they will view it that way."
David Harris, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council in Washington, D.C., said he didn't see anything wrong with the synagogue's approach.
"Non-profit institutions can and should and must have political speakers to educate their audiences. Any one speech doesn't have to be balanced," said Harris.
"Over the course of a cycle," he added, "there does need to be balance."The event, which is being criticized by a local Republican group, comes a little more than a month after a major controversy erupted at a Miami shul over a planned Wasserman Schultz appearance that was ultimately canceled. The official reason given was security concerns, though at least one prominent Republican resigned from the synagogue over the issue.