The day after an anti-Semitic gunman killed 11 at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence appeared at a campaign rally in Michigan with a rabbi who offered a sober opening prayer for the event. “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,” Loren Jacobs began, before lamenting the country’s divisions and praying for peace.
The appearance turned into a minor disaster. Pence introduced Jacobs as “a leader in the Jewish community,” but Jacobs is actually a “Christian rabbi”—that is, not a rabbi recognized by the Jewish faith. The Jewish community was not amused. “Stop pretending and appropriating my people,” one (Jewish) rabbi tweeted. Jacobs’ prayer mentioned “Jesus the Messiah,” and he petitioned God to grant Republican politicians victories in the midterm elections next week. It also turned out he had been defrocked 15 years ago.
Trumpworld is used to sloughing off such embarrassments. Pence’s team quickly distanced themselves from the debacle, spreading the word that Lena Epstein, the Republican candidate in Michigan’s 11th Congressional District, was the one who had invited Jacobs to deliver the prayer. Pence soon headed out of town, appearing Thursday at another rally in Georgia.
Epstein, however, remains in Michigan, and voters in her district do not seem as eager to move on. On Wednesday night, 49 people raised in Detroit’s Jewish community released an extraordinary open letter opposing her candidacy. It didn’t explicitly mention the rabbi debacle, but lambasted “the bigotry of the campaign Lena has chosen to run” and drew a direct line between anti-“globalist” beliefs and the shooting in Pittsburgh. “Lena has warmly embraced and exploited Donald Trump’s message of hate and xenophobia,” they wrote, describing themselves as a group that includes Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. It ends by saying the signatories “urge our community to vote for any other candidate.” The letter will be published in this week’s Detroit Jewish News.
One signatory, a Michigan sports editor named Seth Fisher, posted a devastating Twitter thread on Thursday in which he described the Lena Epstein he had known in high school: a striving, entitled phony who transformed herself by sheer will into an “amoral mouthpiece for deceitful Dinesh D’Souza politics.” One Michigan rabbi, Mark Miller, denounced Jacobs’ appearance at the rally in a public Facebook post. Without naming Epstein, he called the decision to offer Jacobs a platform “a terrible affront to every Jewish person.” According to Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, Miller is Epstein’s own rabbi.
The choice of a defrocked Christian rabbi is an embarrassing misstep, especially for a politician who theoretically should know better. Epstein grew up in a Jewish family, went to Harvard, and now runs her family’s large oil distributorship with her sister. She became a conservative Republican in the early 2010s and served as co-chair of Trump’s presidential campaign in Michigan, where he won in a narrow upset. Marshall described her this week as “a kind of regional Jared Kushner type.”
Epstein supported Trump early, and like Kushner, she has remained unfailingly loyal to him in public. After the Access Hollywood tape emerged, she told the Detroit Free Press that “rude remarks from 2005 aren’t as hurtful or obscene as ignoring the pleas for help from America’s embassy in Benghazi.” She extolled Trump’s “love and support for the Jewish community” to the Forward right before the election. She called Steve Bannon “inspirational.” When her Twitter account was caught liking tweets by David Duke and other white supremacists last year, she claimed she had been hacked.
But Epstein’s invitation of the Messianic “rabbi” to speak at a rally so soon after the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh seems to have been the last straw for many Jews in Michigan. “I could see nothing more offensive or more poorly calculated than to make this decision,” David Kurzmann, executive director of a Jewish advocacy group in Detroit, told the Forward. “The reaction and the rage in the community right now is very significant.”
The seat in Michigan’s 11th District is open, after Republican incumbent Dave Trott, a Trump critic, announced last year he would not seek re-election. Democrat Haley Stevens currently has a narrow lead over Epstein in most estimates. Right about now, it seems like Epstein needs all the prayers she can get.