NEW YORK — Hillary Clinton called on American Jews Monday to tap into their sense of “radical empathy” by continuing to reach out to help and understand the plight of others during this painfully divisive time in the country.
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“In a country as diverse as ours we are not ever going to agree on absolutely everything. That’s okay, it’s even healthy. But 2017 has been a case study of how important it is to try to recapture a sense of common humanity and citizenship. To try and walk in the shoes of people who don’t see the world like we do,” said Clinton, addressing an audience of 700 people at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York City’s LGBTQ synagogue.
“Empathy should not only be at the center of our individual lives and our spiritual lives, but it should be at the center of our public life. And that’s what you understand here at CBST,” said Clinton.
CBST has long been known for its social justice activism and since Trump’s election the synagogue has been on the forefront of action, especially around Muslim marginalization and refugees. Each Friday CBST members stand outside the mosque at New York University holding signs saying things like “Jewish New Yorkers Support Our Muslim Neighbors.” The congregation’s board of directors recently voted to make it a sanctuary synagogue, a place where undocumented immigrants can find safety if fleeing immigration authorities.
“After the election with increased reports of anti-Semitic incidents across America, and violence and bullying against the LGBT community on the rise, this congregation could have turned inward and become isolated. Instead you opened your doors to neighbors in need of help. You marched in solidarity with the Rohingya, and with LGBT people facing persecution in Chechnya,” said Clinton.
CBST was founded in 1973 by gay men and has grown into a spiritual home for New York City’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jewish community,
Clinton urged CBST members to continue leading by example.
“You practiced radical empathy and turned your faith into action I come here tonight to say ‘thank you’ for the last 25 years, but also to urge you to continue for the next 25 years, turning despair into hope. We really need that today.”
In the aftermath of her defeat in the 2016 presidential election she came upon the concept of radical empathy as a way to refocus her own energies and focus as did the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or the shared responsibility to repair the world.
She said Tikun Olam has “helped to pick me up and keep myself going when I’ve been knocked down, which has happened from time to time,” Clinton wryly said, to laughter from the gathered crowd.
She has long relied on values shared by Judaism and her Methodist faith, she said.
“I learned growing up in my church, ‘do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can for as long as ever you can,’ “ she said.
The purpose of the evening at the synagogu, titled “Bringing Vision to Life,” was to celebrate 25 years of Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum’s leadership at CBST and to raise enough money to close out the capital campaign that funded the construction of its new home.
Two famous CBST members emceed the evening: BravoTV personality Andy Cohen and actress Cynthia Nixon.
Clinton received a standing ovation as soon as she walked onto the stage.
The former secterary of state said she learned from Kleinbaum that “we are put on this earth for a purpose,” said Clinton said. “If it wasn’t crystal clear before it is now,” she said to laughter.
Clinton also tried her hand at a Yiddish. Kleinbaum’s family is of course kevelling, Clinton said, pronouncing it with an extra syllable at the front of the word. When the audience laughed at her attempt at Yiddish, she said, “not bad for a Methodist from the Midwest.” Her audience roared with laughter.
A year after her stunning loss in the 2016 presidential election, she shared with the audience a college theater a few blocks from the synagogue’s new home near the northern border of Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, how she made it through, citing family, friends, faith, religious values and “my fair share of Chardonnay”.
She took long walks in the woods near her Chappaqua, N.Y. home with her two dogs and watched a lot of HGTV, Clinton said to laughs of recognition from the audience. She also “went into a frenzy of organizing my closets and drawers.”
Then Clinton talked about some of the deeper ways she began to accept what had happened. “I also prayed. I prayed a lot, as fervently as I can remember” doing, she said.
“I prayed for help to put the sadness and disappointment of the election behind me, to stay hopeful and open-hearted rather than become cynical and bitter,” Clinton said. “ And to find some new purposes that would not only be gratifying to me, but be part of what we are all doing to get our country back on the right track.”
“I prayed that America’s future would be better, not worse, under the new administration,” said Clinton. “I’m still praying on that one,” she added.
During the event, Kleinbaum also recognized a Jewish man from the former Soviet Union in the audience. In Russia he was actively persecuted for being gay, said the rabbi. But that very day he had been granted asylum status by the U.S. government, making America a safe haven.
His ability to obtain protection is a direct result of policy implemented by Clinton when she was the U.S. secretary of state, Kleinbaum said.
“These are not abstract ideas,” she added. “Hillary has always fought for what she believed in. She has always persisted.”