Florida rabbi loses job after helping lead Trump protest

A Florida rabbi must leave his pulpit after his protest of Donald Trump’s speech at the annual AIPAC conference riled congregants.

Rabbi David Paskin, who has served at Temple Beth David, a Conservative synagogue in the south Florida city of Palm Beach Gardens since 2014, has stopped leading Shabbat services and “given back his keys,” though the official agreement to “part ways” with the congregation doesn’t take effect until July 22, PalmBeachPost.com reported.

In March, Paskin and two other Conservative rabbis, Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and Jesse Olitzky of New Jersey, led a protest of Trump’s speech at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C.

Some two months later, Paskin’s contract was not renewed.

Temple Beth David denied that the Trump protest cost Paskin his job, which he had held for nearly two years following 16 years as the spiritual leader at Temple Beth Abraham in Canton, Massachusetts. When he was hired in 2014, the guitar-playing Paskin referred to himself as “the rock ’n’ roll rabbi” in a newspaper interview.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor (left) kneels next to since-ousted Rabbi David Paskin on March 21 at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C. photo/jta-facebook

Steve Bogad, Beth David’s executive director, called the parting a “mutual decision.” Paskin also used the word “mutual” to describe his departure, and said the synagogue did not tell him the decision was due to his protest.

But he told JTA he had no idea about the decision before the AIPAC conference, which occurred in the middle of Trump’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, and described it as unexpected.

A congregant with knowledge of the matter said that the Trump protest factored into the synagogue board’s decision to not renew Paskin’s contract. Two congregants said that synagogue members were upset that Paskin led the walkout, and that the protest was so public.

“I had no indication that we were going to separate before the Trump activism,” Paskin said. “Did I ever imagine that the normal tension that exists from time to time between congregation and clergy, did I ever imagine those would lead to a separation? I did not.”

Paskin, Creditor and Olitzky led the protest of Trump at the start of his March 21 speech. Some 300 attendees walked out during the event. The three rabbis’ contingent numbered about 60 of those. AIPAC leadership later apologized for the enthusiastic response of many of the 18,000 remaining audience members to Trump’s criticism of President Barack Obama.

On March 25, four days after Trump’s speech, Paskin wrote an open letter to his community on Facebook explaining the reasons for his protest and acknowledging the “turmoil” it caused in the community.

“My family has been threatened and, yes, many at Temple Beth David have been unsettled by my choice to participate,” he wrote, adding later, “I am sorry that my actions have caused pain amongst some in our community. I hope we have a chance to share together in a respectful dialogue. I promise to respect your opinions and choices. I only ask that you do the same for me.”

Paskin said he felt a duty to speak out, and will continue publicly opposing Trump.

“I don’t pull any punches,” he said. “Could I have been more delicate? I’m sure I could have been. I speak my heart, and I heard a call and an obligation to speak out, and I took that. I acted on my values and I don’t regret that.”

Other rabbis who protested Trump at the conference have not experienced professional difficulties as a result. Creditor, who has publicly supported Obama in the past, is a vocal advocate on behalf of Israel and against gun violence. He said his activism doesn’t get in the way of his pulpit duties because he makes sure to build relationships with congregants who may disagree with him, and aims to create a climate of pluralism.

“After services, we actually spend the time talking to each other,” said Creditor, who has been at Netivot Shalom since 2007. “Preaching is one mode of rabbinic function. Relationships are the entirety of rabbinic function. There needs to be a kind of humanity that goes along with leadership.”

Some rabbis who generally remain apolitical saw Trump as a special case whose positions necessitated the protests.

“If people don’t feel welcome [at our synagogue] because we take a stand against bigotry, misogyny, hate, then we’re prepared to take that stand,” said Olitzky, rabbi of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Orthodox synagogue Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C, said he has refrained from opposing Trump from the pulpit, but that protesting Trump is about confronting about “an existential threat to our world,” not politics.

At the AIPAC conference, Herzfeld was escorted out of the arena during Trump’s speech when he wrapped himself in a prayer shawl and began denouncing the candidate as “wicked.”

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

JTA reporter