WASHINGTON — Miami's Temple Israel on Thursday cancelled a program featuring Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz after a high-profile Republican donor quit the congregation to protest the top Democratic congresswoman's speech.
Stanley Tate, a well-known philanthropist and prominent Republican who started Florida's pre-paid college tuition program, resigned from the temple after he learned Wasserman Schultz would be talking about Israel following services on Friday night, and that he wouldn't get an opportunity for rebuttal.
The temple's president, Ben Kuehne, a Miami attorney, said the event was canceled because of security concerns. He said they "certainly embrace the congresswoman's willingness to participate in one of our programs," but decided it was "unwise to proceed with the program tomorrow."
Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, called it an unusual situation, due in part to the temple's "internal politics." Temple Israel, which invited her to speak, is just outside her congressional district.
"I believe strongly that in a democracy people should be able to hear from and interact with their elected officials, which is why I gladly accepted Temple Israels invitation to speak as I have previously to many organizations and religious institutions throughout South Florida," she said. " It is unfortunate that some would allow politics to stand in the way of citizens' ability to interact with their representative."
Tate's resignation came after he asked the temple's leadership to let him speak in response to Wasserman Schultz. When they wouldn't do so, Tate said he would leave the congregation. Tate, 85, is co-chair of Mitt Romney's campaign in Miami-Dade County. He also has a national role in the GOP presidential candidate's campaign.
"She's the chairperson of the Democratic National Committee," he said. "The topic is the U.S.-Israel relationship. There cannot be any conversation on that topic, none, unless it has to do with the politics."
The dispute comes in an election year when Republicans are trying to win over traditionally Democratic-leaning Jewish voters from Obama. Some Jewish voters are concerned about the president's stance against Israel's building of settlements in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank.
Kuehne himself was on former vice president Al Gore's legal team during the 2000 recount, and as DNC chairwoman, Wasserman Schultz is one of the presidents top mouthpieces.
Strong political opinions have their place, Kuehne said, but they are "independent of the temple."
"The temple is a non-partisan, non-political organization," he said. "It promotes Jewish religious and cultural values. Politics surround all of what we do in American society. And politics tend to be very potentially divisive of late. But throughout 90 years, Temple Israel has tried to steer clear of politics by getting involved in social justice programming that we believe is independent of and more compelling than political issues."
Tate said he objected to Wasserman Schultz speaking from the dais in the sanctuary. He would have preferred that she speak in the auditorium, and if she did, that there be a Republican involved, too.
Wasserman Schultz's office said she had no control over where she would be speaking. They also pointed out that it's not unusual for political figures to speak at religious institutions, and she is regularly invited to do so. That included attending a service this winter on Martin Luther King Day at New Birth Baptist Church in Miami.
Kuehne said that the sanctuary is frequently used for such events, in part because it is an inviting space and "such a majestic structure."
"We program many events, including services, in the sanctuary," he said. "That's not an unusual situation for us."
Wasserman Schultz was scheduled to speak after the daughter of a college acquaintance was confirmed at the temple. Suzanne Trushin, who went to the University of Florida with Wasserman Schultz, said her daughter, Lauren, 16, has been following the congresswoman's career since she wrote a paper about her in middle school.
Lauren had chosen to speak about the intimidation of Jews over the centuries, and wanted to focus on how Jews of all political persuasions should admire Wasserman Schultz for her achievements, even if they disagreed with her politics.
Trushin, who sits on the temple's board, called the security concerns "a pretext for disinviting a sitting congresswoman."
"Temple Israel of Hollywood, in California, they invited the Rev. Martin Luther King to deliver a sermon back in 1965," she said. "That was a security concern. This was no security concern."