*This interview is the first installment of BPR’s latest series, Faith in Politics, which highlights the viewpoints of different religious leaders on issues at the intersection of politics and religion.
Rabbi Preston Neimeiser is a rabbi with Temple Beth-El in Providence. He was a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College and was ordained in May 2021. As a student, he worked at Congregation B’nai Israel, where he learned the duties of a rabbi. He has spent time working with The Reform Youth Jewish Movement (NFTY) as an educator and attended Heller High, a program for Jewish high school students to spend a semester in Israel. Neimeiser’s dedication to political activism can be seen through his work with the New Sanctuary Coalition, a pro-immigrant rights group. Neimeiser has spent significant time learning and serving the Jewish community, from interning at Tamid: The Downtown Synagogue to learning with the Shalom Hartman Institute and ARZA as a rabbinical student.
Ahad Bashir: A recent poll from the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of Jews identified with the Democratic Party, whereas 75 percent of Orthodox Jews identified with the GOP. Can you explain why we might see this split between how different denominations vote?
Preston Neimeiser: While I couldn’t really tell you why certain people vote the way that they do, what I can say is that America has become a bifurcated nation. And in that way, we have connected certain issues to certain political parties. So, for people who use issues like support for Israel as litmus tests, the political party that waves its flag most performatively will probably get their vote. I can’t speak on behalf of all Jews, but I can say that I, as a Jewish person, hold a multitude of views. I’m complicated—like all of my Jewish siblings who also hold many disparate ideas.
AB: As a Rabbi, how do you believe we should reduce this divisiveness based on political party membership?
PN: I think the way forward, aligning with the instructions of my Torah, is humanization. There was a time where friendship was not predicated on ensuring everyone held the same political affiliation. Previously, you could be friends with individuals and their political affiliation was not viewed as a defining characteristic. Presently, we need to learn to separate identity from politics. This can be hard because people often use political parties as a way to say: “Because I identify as X, you can assume all these things about me.” This might be an easy way to get through life, but until we can look at someone and recognize their shared humanity and desire for self-actualization—instead of their political party affiliation—no progress will be made.
AB: One of the most divisive political issues in America is abortion. How does Judaism view the issue of abortion?
PN: The Jewish legal definition of personhood does not begin at conception. The Torah says that if two people are fighting, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and she miscarries, then there’s a certain remuneration that has to be paid. But it’s not the fetus that has been wronged in that situation, it’s the mother. We also have many legal sources that tell us when a fetus puts its mother’s life in danger, then it is not only acceptable, but it’s the right thing to do to abort that fetus. And because I have such a respect for human agency, it also works out better for that fetus to be born into a home where it can receive the proper love and resources required to live a good life. If we believe that life is sacred, we should do everything we can to look at the person in front of us, and value their life. We should not define them by their potential to bring more life into the world; rather, we should define them based on the life they live and their whole personhood.
AB: On the topic of pressing political issues, how do you believe immigration reform in America should be approached?
PN: This country could certainly be better at seeing human beings as people. I wish people would recognize that the inalienable rights the founders laid down apply to everyone, and that more people could understand that their security does not come at the cost of others’ liberty. My security should not mean that you are disenfranchised or disabled from living or self-actualizing. I think that that’s a good start toward welcoming the stranger as my people’s text—the Torah—tells us to.
Without getting into particulars of politicians, I think that there’s different rhetoric on both sides regarding immigration. Some people might put things in a way that’s more palatable to us, but if the end result is that we’re actually not living up to that value of welcoming the stranger and of loving them as ourselves, then I think that we have a long way to go.
AB: You spent a semester in Israel during college. Given your experiences, how do you think it shaped your views about Israel and Palestine?
PN: When I was a junior in college, my program’s dorms were in East Jerusalem and I found myself having an up-close-and-personal experience with the Israeli occupation. I saw how some things were easier for me because I was white and Jewish, and it felt really wrong that people who lived in my neighborhood didn’t have the freedom of movement that I did. During this time, while my commitment to Israel did not waiver, I became very troubled. I believe identifying as a Jew means living in the aspirational as well as working toward building a world of kindness and justice. It just felt as though Israel was not upholding those values. I took off the rose-covered glasses, and realized that Israel is a real place, and real places have complications. It doesn’t just live in the sky. It’s here on Earth and therefore has many of the problems, issues, and complexities that America has. Israel is not the be-all and end-all of the Jewish people’s work.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.