Every year, Jewish Americans gather in synagogues during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to listen to the sounds of the shofar. The instrument serves as a spiritual wake-up call, ushering in a period of repentance and atonement in the Jewish calendar known as the “Days of Awe.”
This year, a California rabbi decided to mark the start of the Jewish High Holidays with another sort of wake-up call ― a rousing sermon aimed directly at senior White House adviser Stephen Miller, a man the rabbi believes has strayed far from Jewish teaching.
Miller, a descendent of Jewish immigrants, is a key designer of President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration agenda. According to The New York Times, Miller has defended some of the president’s most controversial immigration policies ― including the travel ban that restricted travelers from several Muslim-majority countries, the dramatic cuts Trump has made to refugee admissions, and the “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in the separation of families who illegally crossed the U.S. border.
Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels is a Reform Jewish leader at Beth Shir Shalom, a synagogue in Miller’s hometown of Santa Monica. Comess-Daniels claims when Miller was a child, the adviser’s family briefly belonged to Beth Shir Shalom.
The rabbi said that some of his colleagues are questioning what Miller had been taught at the progressive synagogue. Comess-Daniels spoke up during a Rosh Hashanah service on Monday to assure the community that the synagogue had tried its best to teach Miller the core Jewish values of mercy and compassion.
Comess-Daniels said the actions Miller is encouraging Trump to take “make it obvious to me that [Miller] didn’t get my, or our, Jewish message.”
Jewish history, the rabbi said, is full of stories of refugees and immigrants, of people escaping from slavery into freedom. Judaism teaches people to refrain from cruelness and to struggle for the sake of all that is righteous. It encourages Jews to work together to repair the world.
Miller’s actions at the White House have perpetrated “negativity, violence, malice and brutality,” the rabbi said. In particular, the “zero-tolerance” policy Miller helped craft was “completely antithetical to everything I know about Judaism, Jewish law and Jewish values.”
“From the Jewish perspective, the parent-child relationship is sacrosanct. Disrupting it is cruel,” Comess-Daniels said. “Mr. Miller, the policy that you helped to conceive and put into practice is cruel.”
“Honestly, Mr. Miller, you’ve set back the Jewish contribution to making the world spiritually whole through your arbitrary division of these desperate families at our southern border,” the rabbi added.
The White House did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Miller grew up in a liberal Jewish community in Santa Monica, but emerged as an ardent conservative as a teenager. Comess-Daniels claims Miller’s family attended Beth Shir Shalom when he was around 9 or 10 years old. The Millers also appear to have attended another liberal Reform congregation in the area, the Santa Monica Synagogue. Miller attended that synagogue’s 10th-grade confirmation class, according to The New York Times.
After graduating from college, Miller worked for several Republican politicians before joining Trump’s presidential campaign.
Comess-Daniels isn’t the first Jewish leader to denounce Miller’s actions as a White House adviser. In February, 17 Jewish organizations sent a letter to White House chief of staff John Kelly expressing concern over Miller’s “extreme viewpoints and advocacy of racist policies.” The letter, signed by the National Council of Jewish Women, the American Jewish World Service and others, stated that Miller’s views are “anathema to our Jewish and American values.”
“As Jews, we are in solidarity with immigrants and refugees and believe that our nation must be a refuge and welcoming home for new Americans,” the letter stated. “Our people have been persecuted too many times in history for us to do otherwise.”
Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Jewish news organization Forward, wrote an opinion piece in June encouraging Jews to disown Miller over his family separation policies.
“You are not one of us,” Eisner wrote. “Not when you promulgate dehumanizing policies that violate Jewish values.”
More recently, Miller’s own uncle, David Glosser, wrote an article for Politico explaining how Miller’s maternal ancestors immigrated to the U.S. in the early 20th century to escape persecution in Eastern Europe. Glosser said he’s watched with “dismay and increasing horror” as Miller became the architect of immigration policies that “repudiate the very foundation of our family’s life in this country.”
As part of their spiritual practice during the Days of Awe, Jews often seek forgiveness from friends and family whom they may have hurt in the past year. Comess-Daniels said it was up to Miller to own up to what he has done.
“You can choose to accept responsibility for the havoc you’ve wrought and the wounds you’ve inflicted, or not,” the rabbi said in Monday’s sermon. “You can take some action that seems to heal or rectify the injury you’ve caused, or walk away, wrapping yourself in the deflecting guise of national security.”
For his part, the rabbi promised to never give up hope that Miller would change his ways and become a mensch ― a Yiddish word that describes a person who is filled with honor, integrity, and kindness.
In the meantime, Comess-Daniels said that he and his congregation, along with other progressive people of faith, will be working hard to reverse the damage Miller has done.
“In a place where no one is acting like a mensch, be one,” Comess-Daniels said, quoting the influential ancient rabbi Hillel the Elder. “That’s what we’ll be doing, Mr. Miller, because that’s who we are. We can only hope you will decide to join us.”