Comment: Awkward silence at the Shabbat table

A divisive, shocking election left many unsure about what to say.

November 14, 2016 00:09
2 minute read.
Shabbat candles

Shabbat candles. (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)

TEANECK, New Jersey – At times it was awkward. The first Shabbat following the shocking 2016 presidential election left many Jews around the tristate area just hoping to find something else to talk about.

From Friday night dinners to Saturday morning sermons in synagogues, it seemed most people were dancing around the issues. The weekend is a time to relax and unwind, all the more so for observant Jews who celebrate Shabbat, the 24 hours set aside to unplug, reset and take a breather.

But with a campaign – and an outcome – like no other, many of the traditional Shabbat gatherings were filled with a tension that was previously absent.

I spent the weekend in Teaneck, New Jersey, a suburban town of 40,000 people, about half of whom are estimated to be Jewish. The neighboring towns of New Milford, Bergenfield, Englewood and Fairlawn also have large Jewish – and Orthodox – populations.

In this year’s presidential election, Teaneck voted 75% for Clinton and just 21% for Trump, but polling of Orthodox Jews in other areas make it likely the rate was more even among the town’s religious population.

At my Friday night dinner, the refrain was constant and unanimous: “Let’s not talk about the election.” At a gathering that included voters for both candidates – in addition to copious amounts of food – it was hard not to stray back to the unprecedented, and at times unthinkable week that had passed. Some election-related topics were deemed acceptable, like the ballot initiative on legalizing casinos in New Jersey outside of Atlantic City (it failed), or even the one devoting all the state’s gas tax back into transportation (it passed). But after a divisive week between supporters of candidates with very different outlooks, many, it seemed, wanted to talk about anything but.

And a number of the area’s rabbis felt the same way.

In an Englewood congregation, a special Friday night dinner was scheduled with the theme of unity. The scholar-in-residence stressed that congregants should come together after such a nerve-racking week.

In a Teaneck Orthodox synagogue, the spiritual leader told the congregation of several hundred that he hadn’t spoken about politics throughout the campaign and wasn’t going to start now. But, he urged congregants, this is the time to understand each other.

“We have to understand that not all Americans have the same experience that we do,” he said. “There are immigrants who may be afraid, and there are working-class Americans who feel left behind.”

He noted that whether you felt the other side were “deplorables” or “nasty people,” the rhetoric should be left behind and worshipers should seek to hear out the opinions of those around them.

Luckily, once the services were over, it seemed that everyone united over potato kugel and rogelach.

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