Tom Eblen

Lexington’s first locally born rabbi is speaking out for Muslim refugees

Rabbi David Wirtschafter of Temple Adath Israel was born in Lexington in 1970 and left eight years later when his father, a doctor at the University of Kentucky, went to the University of Minnesota. He returned nearly two years ago to become the first Kentucky-born rabbi of a Jewish congregation in Lexington.
Rabbi David Wirtschafter of Temple Adath Israel was born in Lexington in 1970 and left eight years later when his father, a doctor at the University of Kentucky, went to the University of Minnesota. He returned nearly two years ago to become the first Kentucky-born rabbi of a Jewish congregation in Lexington. teblen@herald-leader.com

Given historical animosities between Muslims and Jews, it might seem strange that one of Lexington’s most outspoken critics of President Donald Trump’s ban on Syrian refugees is a rabbi.

“As an American Jew whose life has been blessed by our country’s capacity to bring people in, this is a moral issue that touches particularly close to home,” said Rabbi David Wirtschafter of Temple Adath Israel.

“We can’t kid ourselves about the stakes in the immigrant-refugee crisis,” he said. “To turn people away and think they are going to be accommodated somewhere else is a tragic act of denial. If we turn people away, we are enabling their deaths. That’s not what America’s about.”

Wirtschafter has spoken at several recent refugee support rallies and has impressed people with his eloquence. Because Lexington’s Jewish community is small and he has been a local rabbi for less than two years, some people have wondered where he came from. The short answer is he came home.

Wirtschafter, 47, is the first Lexington-born rabbi to lead a local congregation. His family has belonged to both the Temple and Lexington’s other major Jewish congregation, Ohavay Zion Synagogue.

“The announcements of my birth and of my sister’s birth are in these handwritten records,” he said, pointing to a bookshelf in his office, when we visited this week.

Wirtschafter is the fourth of five children of the late Dr. Jonathan Wirtschafter, who came to Lexington to teach at the University of Kentucky’s medical school and founded its ophthalmology department. His mother, Carol Wirtschafter, started Camp Shalom, the region’s first Jewish day camp, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year.

The family left Lexington for Minneapolis in 1978. Wirtschafter grew up there and, after a year at the University of Minnesota, graduated from Brandeis University. He also studied in London and on three occasions lived in Israel. He did his rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

He had worked in Jewish ministry and education for 18 years in California and Minnesota when the Temple job opened after Rabbi Marc Kline’s move to New Jersey. Wirtschafter said one thing that brought him home was the Temple’s social activism, which includes helping refugees.

Wirtschafter’s grandfather immigrated from what is now the Czech Republic more than a century ago.

His wife, Shana Sippy, comes from a Jewish and Hindu family. Her father is an engineer who immigrated to the United States from India.

“So I am the grandchild of immigrants and my children are the grandchildren of immigrants,” he said, referring to son, Zachariah, 17, and daughter, Emanuelle, 13.

All of the world’s great religions emphasize loving other people, helping those in need and welcoming strangers. Yet, amid Trump’s rhetoric, there has been a rise in hate crimes, attacks on immigrants and desecration of Jewish cemeteries.

This is a time when people must speak out about the “core values” of America and their faith, Wirtschafter said, adding that he is fortunate his congregation encourages him to do that. “You have to send a message to your clergy that you have their back if they take a stand,” he said.

The political, cultural and religious differences now tearing the nation apart are as old as humanity, but Wirtschafter thinks social media has made them worse, because it is now easy for people to live in their own intellectual bubbles.

The only way to manage these differences is for people to open themselves to honest dialogue with those who think differently, he said. Humans have more commonalities that differences, and people can uphold their values without demonizing those who see things differently.

“If every sentence you construct in your mind as to how it got to be this bad begins with the words ‘because they,’ then you need to change your thinking,” he said. “You need to disagree with people around you in such a way that they can still imagine being your friend.”

Honest dialogue about divisive issues is hard, but Wirtschafter thinks Lexington is well-suited to model reconciliation for other communities. This is an educated city with increasingly diverse leadership and cultural aspects that bring people together across lines of religion, race and class — such as UK basketball.

Wirtschafter has been a fan since he was a boy, and his father was Coach Adolph Rupp’s physician. He attends games frequently, usually wearing a yamaka, the traditional Jewish cap, woven with the UK logo.

He was attending a recent game with Ihsan Bagby, a UK professor and local Muslim leader, when a stranger tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to his yamaka. “He said, ‘That’s the best one of those I’ve ever seen,’” Wirtschafter said.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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