Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Of synagogues & politics--your opinion requested

One of our local politicians has been extremely helpful in getting our synagogue reimbursed for sponsoring such non-sectarian community programs as computer classes for seniors. So the president, in his infinite wisdom (meaning that, as usual, he didn't consult anyone else), decided that the shul would sponsor a kiddush in that politician's honor. Unfortunately, the politician's schedule was so crowded that the only available day was less than a week before a primary in which s/he was running for re-election.

I registered my official protest at a recent board meeting, saying that I considered the timing of the kiddush a classic case of marit ayin (roughly translated, "it looks bad"), since I thought that the congregation was skating dangerously close to endorsing a candidate, an action prohibited by law for any not-for-profit organization. I quoted the old saying, "If it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it's a duck." The charge was roundly denied by everyone, including my husband, on the grounds that the kiddush was not publicized outside of our synagogue and there were no political speeches.

What's your opinion? Is it appropriate for a non-profit organization to sponsor a "buffet," for members and invited guests only, in honor of a helpful politician only days before an election?


Anonymous jdub said...

It's inappropriate. Wait until after the election.

Thu Sep 24, 08:53:00 AM 2009  
Anonymous Miami Al said...

Completely appropriate. It let's the membership know who their friends are and hopefully urges them to support the politician. Right before the election at least gives the politician the impression that they will get some votes from the synagogue that they are helping, and reminds the members to vote.

If you want to wait until after the election, as well as keep their support a secret, expect no more help in the future.

Morat Ayin is a limited set of restrictions, not anything you don't like.

Thu Sep 24, 10:11:00 AM 2009  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

I'd consult a lawyer - the risk to your non-profit status should not be evaluated by amateurs.

The definition of Marat Ayin used by my teacher Rav Silver would not support the idea that the giving the kiddush would be marat ayin. But he favors a restrictive definition of the term.

Thu Sep 24, 11:33:00 AM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"It let's the membership know who their friends are and hopefully urges them to support the politician." Miami Al, I don't know what the law is in the State of Florida, but in the State of New York, it's illegal for a not-for-profit organization to endorse a political candidate. So urging the membership to support a candidate is actually, factually, against the law.

"I'd consult a lawyer - the risk to your non-profit status should not be evaluated by amateurs." Larry, that's pretty much what I was thinking.

I may be a bit "off" in my understanding of marit ayin. (For the record, I "googled" both "marit" and "marat," and the results seemed to indicate that both spellings are currently in use.)

Thu Sep 24, 02:12:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

I may be a bit "off" in my understanding of marit ayin.

Perhaps we'll talk about this a week from Tuesday. There's plenty of room for elu v'elu on the topic. I'm personally wary of what I see as an overuse of the terms 'marit ayin' and 'chillul hashem' in contemporary discourse.

Thu Sep 24, 02:36:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"I'm personally wary of what I see as an overuse of the terms 'marit ayin' and 'chillul hashem' in contemporary discourse." That might make an interesting topic for discussion under the s’chach. We're looking forward to joining you and Malka Esther in your sukkah.

Thu Sep 24, 04:20:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Eliyahu said...

a lawyer could research the cases of the past that rise to the level of endorsement, or are otherwise problematic for non-profits.

my sense is (without said research) that the politician could be introduced with a disclaimer "We can't support anyone. We do believe that "xyz" training is helpful to the community." As long as there is not a clear endorsement, probably ok. consider this: is he an overwhelming favorite? circumstances do matter.

Sat Sep 26, 11:27:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"is he an overwhelming favorite?"

Apparently not--s/he lost the primary election.

Sun Sep 27, 01:28:00 AM 2009  
Blogger Eliyahu said...


Sun Sep 27, 02:58:00 PM 2009  
Anonymous jdub said...

I would note that my comment was not about marit ayin (this definitely isn't) or whether it was illegal (questionable, but, for the record, I am an attorney and I'm not completely ignorant of these issues), but rather one of propriety. Things can be inappropriate, yet perfectly legal and/or halachic. You can let the membership know who their friends are after the election just as easily as you can before. That it will have less impact post-election is precisely what makes it inappropriate to do it pre-election.

Tue Sep 29, 02:57:00 PM 2009  
Anonymous Miami Al said...

Identity politics and machine politics are based on the ability to segment voters out, deliver favors, and get votes in return. If a politician is using the office to benefit your organization, your organization needs to return the favor by publicizing it WITHOUT stepping over the line and endorsing, jeopardizing the 501(c)3 status.

I think that not publicly thanking the helpful politician before an election isn't maintaining propriety, it's showing disrespect of the implicit quid-pro-quo of politics. Your guy losing isn't a big deal, because now you cultivate help with the next incumbent, but if you don't publicize their constituent support, you won't get it from their successor.

Rewards and punishments are the glue that hold local politics together.

Tue Sep 29, 03:27:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

JDub and Miami Al, finding a reasonable balance that won't jeopardize the synagogue's tax-exempt status is a tricky business. Wish us luck.

Wed Sep 30, 01:29:00 PM 2009  

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