WASHINGTON ― Rabbi Haskel Lookstein on Friday reversed an earlier decision to deliver the opening prayer at the Republican National Convention next week after facing a deluge of criticism from his former students who questioned how he could lend tacit support to presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
“In the interest of bringing our community together, I have asked to be relieved of my commitment to deliver the invocation. My request has been honored with the same love and respect in which it was first offered and intended,” Lookstein wrote in an email. It was sent Friday and addressed to the “Ramaz Family,” those affiliated with an Orthodox Jewish Day School that Lookstein, until recently, headed.
According to Lookstein, he was invited to the convention by Ivanka Trump, who is a member of the Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue, where Lookstein is the Rabbi Emeritus, to appear at the convention in Cleveland on Monday. He accepted, apparently unaware of the political firestorm the decision would ignite.
Within hours of the Thursday announcement that he would appear at the convention, Ramaz alumni flooded the internet with petitions and calls for him to reconsider his decision. The reactions from many of his former students ranged from disgusted to disappointed and confused.
“To embrace Trump and Trumpism goes against all we’ve been taught. As graduates of Ramaz, and as current or former members of the Modern Orthodox community, this is a shanda beyond the pale,” Jacob Savage wrote in a change.org petition, using the Yiddish word for “shame.” The petition amassed over 800 signatures by the time Lookstein announced he was no longer planning to deliver the prayer.
It is not clear from Lookstein’s statement if will still be attending the convention. A spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Rabbi Lookstein - everything you’ve taught me, from preparing me for my bat mitzva, to your weekly sermons, to your incredible leadership runs counter to everything Trump stands for,” Miryam Kabakov commented on the petition Savage posted. “That’s why I am utterly confused. Please reconsider this decision - or at least explain it to your students and those who have followed you for so long.”
The petitions ― which invoked Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, plan to build a wall on the border with Mexico, decision to skip the NAACP convention, refusal to condemn neo-Nazi behavior, and history of misogynistic comments ― essentially asked the rabbi why he would put himself in the position of appearing to offer legitimacy to someone who routinely spouts hateful rhetoric.
“You may believe, based on personal knowledge or intuition, that he is not actually an anti-semite, or for that matter, xenophobic or sexist. But by voicing, giving voice to, and then refusing to condemn the most vile and blatant bigoted people and beliefs, Mr. Trump, as the possible future leader of the free world, takes a dangerous step in the slippery slope towards actual institutional bigotry,” wrote a group of anonymous “students, congregants, and sincere admirers in a public letter.
Even some with longtime family ties to Lookstein, Ramaz, and Kehilath Jeshurun were appalled by Lookstein’s initial decision. “I think we can agree that [Trump] is far from embodying the kind of “menschlichkeit” that R. Lookstein sought to instill in us at Ramaz,” Yitz Landes, an alumnus, wrote in a public Facebook post, using the Yiddish word for a person of integrity and honor.
Landes, whose grandmother attended the Ramaz school with Lookstein, urged his fellow alumni to unsubscribe from the Ramaz School email list and shared Lookstein’s email list for students who wished to share their dissatisfaction.
Lookstein said in his statement he was caught by surprise when his name appeared on the list of convention speakers, without clarifying his specific role. “Without the context of the invocation I had been invited to present, the whole matter turned from rabbinic to political, something which was never intended,” he wrote in the Friday email. “Like my father before me, I have never been involved in politics. Politics divides people. My life has been devoted to uniting a community.”
Savage, who wrote the change.org petition, said in an email to The Huffington Post that he is “relieved that [Lookstein has] decided to reconsider and listen to the many voices he’s helped shape over the years.”
The last-minute reversal hours before the Shabbat holiday means that the Trump campaign is short on time to find another rabbi willing to risk the potential backlash of leading the prayer at the convention next week.
Scroll down to see Lookstein’s full statement and the prayer he intended to deliver:
Editor’s note: Donald Trump