Ivanka and Jared
Jared and Ivanka Kushner, April 9, 2016 (Photo/JTA-Andy Katz-Pacific Press-LightRocket-Getty Images)

An open letter to Jared Kushner

Mr. Kushner,

I congratulate you on your appointment as senior advisor to your father-in-law, President Donald Trump. This is a great honor for you, and you now play a major role in shaping the future of the United States.

I write this to you as one Jew to another. Although our political viewpoints may differ, we both anchor our lives in the uplifting and sacred values of Judaism. Your grandparents were survivors of the Holocaust and embraced by this country as immigrants. I know that you were educated in Orthodox day schools that I am sure provided you with a strong foundation in the moral and ethical teachings of our Jewish tradition. It is wonderful that your wife Ivanka converted to Judaism, and that you are now raising three children in a home filled with Jewish values.

I think most Americans want President Trump to succeed as our leader. However, he has said many things during the campaign that are of great concern, and now during his first weeks in office he has taken many actions that are extremely difficult to reconcile with Jewish values. We know that in Judaism words are sacred and cannot be taken back. How was the world created? With words. We create worlds with our words.

I am writing this to you with respect for all your outstanding accomplishments and with the hope that you can help to infuse his presidency with Jewish values that shape your life. Here are just some of the Jewish values that I have to assume anchor your life, which seem to be absent in the decisions made during the first week of his presidency:

On his first full day of office, he went to the CIA and stood in a place that is kadosh, sacred, the Memorial Wall. On that wall are 117 stars representing men and women who gave their lives for this country. In Judaism, we strive to live lives that are kadosh and we are taught to respect kadosh in space and time. He made no mention of where he stood but used it as an opportunity to attack the media and to talk about the crowd at his inauguration. Indeed, he said supportive words about the CIA. Words have great meaning in Judaism. Can those words erase all the demeaning words he has said about our intelligence community?

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, he signed a presidential order that bars Syrian refugees as well as Muslim refugees from six other countries from entering America (though that ban has since been suspended by the courts). As a grandson of Holocaust survivors, how does one reconcile that position with your own past? As you know so well, our country refused to take in many Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. The Syrian people are victims of a dictatorship and of the radical terrorist group ISIS. You are well aware of the Jewish value of pikuah nefesh — of saving the lives of those in need. This principle even supersedes Shabbat observance. This is a core tenet of Judaism. Quotas turned Jews away during World War II, and the St. Louis was turned back to Germany. Yes, there are terrorists in the world, but to treat all Muslims as terrorists is a tragic mistake, reflecting a misunderstanding of Islam that goes against the best of Jewish and American values.

A core value of Judaism is to welcome the stranger — “because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” That line dominates so many of our Jewish values. Yes, people from Mexico and other countries, have come into this country illegally, for a variety of reasons. Yes, there are people who should be deported. But how about all those people who have come here, have worked through legal channels and are contributing so much of this country. Are we not a country of immigrants? Have Jews not found a safe haven here in America? The President’s actions are terrifying so many people with Green Cards and even citizens who are frightened that they will be expelled from this country.

During the campaign and since taking office, there have been continued attacks against one of the most important institutions of a democracy: a free press. A free press is an anchor of democracy. Journalism is a profession with many people of great integrity, and, like any profession, there are people who do not meet professional standards. Asking questions is at the core of Judaism. This is the foundation of Jewish learning. Questions are considered critically important for the wellbeing of the community. Also, as you know, even in our great canon of Jewish law and legend, the Talmud, we record the majority and the minority opinion; we record the discussion; we record differing opinion. Limiting the freedom of the press has been a cornerstone of totalitarian societies that went on to take away the rights of Jews and many other minorities.

Finally, I hope that you will keep close to your heart as you counsel the President, the values I am sure are imbued in your lifestyle as an observant Jew: Kavod — respect for all people, respect for democratic institutions; rachamim — compassion, the ability to empathize with the most vulnerable, the mandate to be fair to all people as stated in the powerful words of the Holiness Code in Leviticus 19; tzedek, tzedek tirdof — pursue justice in every way conceivable. I ask you to always consider the words of Isaiah that we read on Yom Kippur: “Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.”

Jared, my prayers are with you and with the President of the United States. I hope that you will both keep the words of one Jewish refugee, Albert Einstein, in mind in your deliberations and decisions: “America is today the hope of all honorable men who respect the rights of their fellow men and who believe in the principle of freedom and justice.”

lee bycel
Rabbi Lee Bycel

Rabbi Lee Bycel is rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa and an adjunct professor in the Swig program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.