By Derek Hawkins August 17 at 3:27 AM
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, at the Kehilath Jeshurun Synagogue in Manhattan in 2011. (Anthony Behar/Sipa Press)
A head rabbi at Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s New York City synagogue denounced President Trump’s response to the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, joining a chorus of political and religious leaders who say the president was wrong to blame “both sides” for the violence.
In a letter Wednesday to his congregation, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein wrote that his community had been “consumed” by the “frightening message and fallout” from the hate-fueled mayhem that left one woman dead and others injured last weekend.
“We are appalled by this resurgence of bigotry and antisemitism, and the renewed vigor of the neo-Nazis, KKK and alt-right,” read the letter, which was signed by Lookstein and two other rabbis. “While we always avoid politics, we are deeply troubled by the moral equivalency and equivocation President Trump has offered in his response to this act of violence.”
“We pray that our country heeds the voices of tolerance, and stays true to its vision of human rights and civil rights,” it read.
President Trump on Aug. 15 said that “there’s blame on both sides” for the violence that erupted in Charlottesville on Aug. 12. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)
The five paragraph letter came a day after the president defended his remarks about the Unite the Right rally and his portrayal of the participants as a mostly benign force.
A broad array of politicians and others have criticized the president for waiting a full day to condemn the white supremacist groups that converged on Charlottesville and for stating repeatedly that counterprotesters were equally culpable for the street skirmishes that paralyzed the city.
“I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it,” Trump told reporters Tuesday. He added later that he believed many rally participants were not members of hate groups and were there to demonstrate against the city’s removal of a statue of the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Lookstein is rabbi emeritus of the Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan where Kushner and the president’s daughter attend. In 2009, he presided over Ivanka Trump’s conversion to Judaism before she married Kushner.
In a brief interview with The Post on Wednesday night, Lookstein declined to say whether he had spoken directly with the couple about the president’s remarks on Charlottesville.
“I respect their privacy very, very much,” Lookstein said. “I don’t want to intrude on it.”
“My colleagues and I felt we had to make a statement that we felt was important for the congregation. And that’s it,” he added. “It was very important to respond to the needs of my community.”
Ivanka Trump, who has previously bucked her father on certain issues, has remained mum on the situation except for a pair of tweets she posted Sunday.
“There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis,” she wrote. “We must all come together as Americans — and be one country UNITED. #Charlottesville.”
After her father clinched the Republican nomination last summer, Trump invited Lookstein to deliver the opening prayer at the party’s convention in Cleveland. He initially told her yes “out of respect for her and our relationship,” as The Washington Post reported at the time, but backed out after hundreds of Modern Orthodox Jews signed petitions asking him not to appear.
“The whole matter turned from rabbinic to political, something which was never intended. … I have never been involved in politics,” Lookstein wrote in an email to congregants in July 2016. “Politics divides people. My life has been devoted to uniting a community.”
Lookstein was one of several Jewish leaders to publicly break with the president Wednesday over the Unite the Right rally.
The Republican Jewish Coalition issued a one-paragraph statement calling on Trump to “provide greater moral clarity in rejecting racism, bigotry, and antisemitism,” as The Post reported. The statement was signed by Chairman Norm Coleman and executive director Matt Brooks, who wrote that “small fringe groups” have “never been welcome in the GOP.” The organization’s board members include Las Vegas casino magnate and major Republican donor Sheldon Adelson.
Abe Foxman, a Holocaust survivor and former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, also spoke out against Trump on Wednesday in an interview with Jewish Insider.
“I never thought that I would witness the day that a president of the United States would rationalize away Nazism, its hatred, its violence, and find excuses for it,” said Foxman, currently director of the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism. “For him to have seen the torch parade and the epithets against his daughter, his grandchildren, his son-in-law, and stand up and say both sides are equal? Shame, shame, shame.”
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