Religion and Culture: Trump travel ban dividing LA Jewish community

Protesters at the Los Angeles Airport on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2017.
Protesters at the Los Angeles Airport on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2017.
Renee Gross/USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion
Protesters at the Los Angeles Airport on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2017.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld of Temple Beth Am said to his congregation, “Some of you are thanking me for emails and posts. And some of you are yelling at me, 'How dare you not post! Or how dare you post what you did post?'"
Courtesy of Temple Beth Am
Protesters at the Los Angeles Airport on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2017.
Elsagav Shaham and his wife, Penina Cooper, in their L.A. apartment. Shaham believes that Muslim refugees pose more of a threat than Jewish refugees did during World War II.
Renee Gross/ USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld was anxious as he wrote his weekly sermon. It was the week after President Donald Trump signed a ban on travelers from seven predominately Muslim countries, and the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles was about to take a big risk.

In his eight years at the synagogue, Kligfeld never directly addressed politics and rarely hinted at it in sermons. But he recently wrote an email to congregants describing how they could support refugees and it landed him in the middle of a crossfire.

“Some of you are begging me to unify the congregation and ensure it is a safe space for all,” he later said in his sermon. “And some of you are demanding of me to take strong stands, even if it divides the congregation, because that and only that is moral leadership.”

The president's travel ban opened a deep rift in the Jewish community over whether to allow Muslims into the U.S. The Trump administration is expected to revise the ban, but the cohesion in the Jewish community has already frayed.

The division is about more than politics. Rather, it goes to the heart of Jewish identity. Many Jews who oppose the ban feel it echoes their own past persecution. Those who support the ban believe that Islam is inherently violent — feelings stroked by Israel's decades-long experience with terrorism. 

Steven Windmueller, a professor of Judaism at Hebrew Union College, believes the Jewish community is just as divided as the rest of the United States. “The fact that the community is polarized, it makes it much harder for communal professionals and rabbis to be that much more in the forefront on these kinds of issues,” he said.

A week after the Trump travel order was signed, Elsagav Shaham, who sometimes worships at Temple Beth Am, spoke positively about the president’s decision before Shabbat dinner. Four guests, including two young women from Israel and an older couple, listened in agreement. Even after his wife announced the meal, Shaham continued with the conversation. That some Jews refused to see the Muslim threat distressed him.

“They haven’t stopped conquering and killing people all over the globe,” he said. “What peaceful religion?”

Some of Shaham’s family died in the Holocaust, and he considers himself a refugee. His father moved to Israel in the early 1930s, and when Shaham was 14 years old, the family immigrated to the U.S. But he sees a difference between Muslim and Jewish refugees. Jews were escaping danger, he said, but Muslims are “trying to take over the country,” meaning the U.S.

While Rabbi Kligfeld doesn’t believe people should generalize about Islam, he does understand why some of his congregants fear immigrants from predominately Muslim countries.

“I have no problem saying that I think one of the greatest threats to civilization and to democracy is Jihadism,” he said. “It doesn't describe all of Islam, but it also is a stated goal of many radical groups that are emanating from the Middle East. And one of their goals is to infiltrate open societies like ours.”

Hasia Diner, a historian of Jewish history at New York University, is not surprised that some Republican Jews continue to support the president.

“All they love is [Israel Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and Trump,” she said. “They are perfectly happy with the suppression of Muslims and the grabbing of land in Israel.”

Diner said she didn’t believe the executive order completely changed the Jewish community’s political priorities. But there has been some movement.

Organizations that were not overtly supportive of Muslims in the past are suddenly shifting. Yeshiva University, an Orthodox institution in New York, has recently become a sanctuary campus for Muslims.

“For them to come out with such a bold action in favor of Muslims is really quite surprising and very impressive,” Diner said. It speaks, she said, to how much the travel ban has touched a nerve among Jews.

For Charlie Tetiyevsky, a 26-year-old Jewish writer, the ban did just that. Her parents were refugees from the former Soviet Union who emigrated to New Jersey in the late 1980s. Knowing how much they wanted to leave the Soviet Union and how hard it was to do, she decided to protest the ban after it was signed.                                                             

But her parents were not likely to join her. Tetiyevsky didn’t talk about the executive order with them because they “recite all the conservative talking points about the national security” when they discuss refugees. Her parents are Republicans and her father voted for Trump.

She admits her parents’ situation differed from those of Syrian refugees today. “It's not like my parents were being bombed out of their homes; it’s more of [an] insidious kind of psychological attack over a prolonged period by a totalitarian government …,” she said. “It's all about the regime and that concentration of control, and that gets to people.”

Tetiyevsky believes her parents’ Soviet background influenced their conservative views, and it is difficult for her to find common ground with her family. “If they were not my family, I would not be speaking with them,” she said. “The fact is that I love these people but I wouldn't have anything to do with them if we weren't each other's family.”

In his sermon, Rabbi Kligfeld of Temple Beth Am decided to acknowledge the divide in his own congregation. “I know some of you are afraid. And I know that some of you are afraid for very different reasons. And I share some of both types of those fears,” he said. “As your rabbi, I also am afraid of what those differing fears are already doing to the fabric of our community.”

To make his point, he reminded them of a Torah passage: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Some American Jews have recently used this passage as a rallying cry to oppose the ban, but Rabbi Kligfeld said the words had relevance for the Beth Am community.

“Let us recognize the strangers beyond and the strangers within,” he said. “Let us take the risk of meeting one another.”

This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past several years. This spring, students will report and write on Southern California's Greek Orthodox community and Syrian refugees and will be visiting Greece.