Being a Jewish member of Congress at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the most sacred days of the Jewish calendar — can be a juggling act of piety and politics.
There was the recent Rosh Hashanah when Sen. Charles E. Schumer’s Brooklyn rabbi gave the New York Democrat a special blessing from the pulpit for his efforts to pass universal health care — triggering spontaneous applause from his fellow congregants. Each Kol Nidre, the holy evening service at the start of Yom Kippur, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) offers “a prayer for our country.”
Sure, the 33 Jewish members of Congress are public figures. But they’re also individuals marking the 10-day period that began Wednesday night. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which begins Sept. 13, Jews commemorate the new year and are called to contemplate how to become their best selves in the coming months. Congressional Jews have their own rituals and topics on which to reflect.
Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) said he was marking on Wednesday the fifth anniversary of his wife’s death; they were married 50 years. Two decades ago, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who was raised in Baltimore’s Orthodox community, and his family created special holiday prayers and traditions. One prayer speaks of how close the family is and how members miss people who have passed away. People go around the table and share positive things that happened during the previous year. They use a stream behind his daughter’s home to carry out the Rosh Hashanah ritual called “tashlich,” which involves casting off your sins (usually embodied by a piece of bread) into water. Schumer’s family eats smoked herring on corn bread.
Sometimes the Jewish holidays fall when Congress is in summer recess, so there is no conflict. Otherwise, sessions pause for the holidays, a time when Jews are called to visualize their own death to force them to look squarely at themselves, their lives, and what they need to heal and improve to be nearer to God. They wear white and fast to bring intensity to the spiritual quest.
This year Rosh Hashanah, one of the most observed holidays of the year, falls as the question of military intervention in Syria is consuming the Capitol. Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee spent Wednesday in debate, crafting and passing a resolution that could head to the full Senate next week. Cardin, a member of the committee, said that even though he is relatively observant, he would have remained in Washington if need be, even as Rosh Hashanah began at sunset Wednesday.
“If it was a matter of national emergency, of course I’ll put my responsibility as senator first,” he said Tuesday night. He said he and Joseph I. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who served four terms as a senator from Connecticut, discussed such conflicts. “We both agreed, if it’s an emergency, you do the business of the country and that comes first.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who is known to be an observant Jew, skipped Wednesday’s hearing to fly home, but she voted by proxy in support of a resolution authorizing military force in Syria.
Many rabbis were expected to offer sermons on Syria to their largest audiences of the year. Some members said they preferred less political, more spiritual themes in High Holiday sermons (“I hear about politics 364 days a year,” said Schumer), while others said they felt policy and faith sometimes must merge.
“I hope we hear about Syria,” said Levin, who came back from Michigan to Washington for the debate on Syria and will spend Thursday at Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Bethesda. “The use of chemical weapons . . . you can’t simply ignore an event that has such deadly consequences. If I was giving a sermon, I’d talk about the importance of acting.”
Preaching to members of Congress isn’t easy. Jeff Goldberg, a writer on Middle East issues for the Atlantic and Bloomberg News who has lived (and worshipped) in Washington for 20 years, said he has heard sermons on policy topics as high-ranking officials involved in said topics sat in the congregation pews.
“Rabbis across America might sermonize on Israel, but when a rabbi is in Washington, there’s a good chance there’s someone from the Israeli Embassy sitting there or one of Obama’s peace envoys. . . . You have to step up your game,’’ said Goldberg, who spends holidays at Adas Israel, a large Conservative synagogue whose congregation includes several present and former members of Congress.
While most members are able to return home for the holidays, there is an infrastructure to support Jewish life on Capitol Hill when people can’t. Rabbi Abraham Shemtov of the outreach-
focused Chabad movement of Judaism is something of an unofficial Hill rabbi, organizing everything from regular prayer groups to special mourning services required in Judaism. There also is the Congressional Jewish Staffers Association, and the Sixth and I synagogue and community center in nearby Chinatown has focused on providing spiritual events for young Jewish Hill staffers. Sixth and I has some of the city’s largest High Holiday services.
For public figures, the themes of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur seem a unique challenge, as Jews are asked to scrub their souls of flaws, admit errors and ask others for forgiveness. Asked what resolutions or repentance they might be pondering in the pews this week, none would be specific.
“We fast on Yom Kippur,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “I think the rest of it is pretty much private.”