Zeldin Takes Pass on Forum

Interfaith forum on morality

An interfaith forum on morality will proceed as planned Monday night, but one of its invited guests, Representative Lee Zeldin, will not be there. 

The forum, at 7 p.m. in Fellowship Hall at the Hamptons Methodist Church in Southampton, was to feature Mr. Zeldin and Perry Gershon, his opponent in the Nov. 6 election to represent New York’s First Congressional District. Participating clergy, all representing houses of worship on the South Fork, extended invitations to the congressman and his challenger last month. 

The forum, according to the July 19 invitation from Rabbi Jan Urbach of the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons in Bridgehampton, who initiated the event, is “to enable you to share with voters your views on significant moral issues of the day and the moral dimensions of government policy.” Five dates in August were offered. 

“Recognizing the incivility that characterizes much public discourse today — of concern to all of us as clergy and we trust to you as well — we will use our authority as clergy to ensure respectful and open discourse, and an opportunity for each of you to be heard,” the invitation said. 

Five days later, another email was sent to Mr. Zeldin, whose campaign had not responded. “Our congregants and parishioners have expressed great enthusiasm at the opportunity to hear from both you and Mr. Gershon about your values and moral convictions, as well as the way each of you approaches the moral/ethical dimensions of the policies you support and oppose,” it read. “They are anxious for genuine conversation, hungry to hear elected officials and candidates focus on morality, and looking to us as religious leaders to assist in elevating public discourse. We know that you have often lamented the lack of civility at in-person forums, so we trust that you will welcome this opportunity to participate in a high-level discussion moderated by a diverse group of interfaith clergy, representing a wide variety of faith traditions.” 

On July 25, Chris Boyle, of Mr. Zeldin’s campaign, responded, saying that he was working to coordinate debates and forums. He asked that Rabbi Urbach fill out a request form, for which a link was provided, “and we will get back to you as soon as we can.” 

Five days later, Rabbi Urbach sent another email to Mr. Boyle stating that she had still not received a reply. “We have done everything possible to take Mr. Zeldin’s schedule into account, but if we don’t get proposed dates from you, we will need to schedule it regardless,” she wrote. Finally, the clergy set a date for the forum. 

Mr. Gershon had responded immediately and offered several possible dates, according to a release issued by the clergy. Mr. Zeldin, the release said, “passed up the opportunity to suggest dates and once a date was set indicated he would not attend.” The sponsoring clergy expressed disappointment at the congressman’s unwillingness to engage, and continued to welcome and hope that he would reconsider.

Katie Vincentz, Mr. Zeldin’s communications director, contacted Rabbi Urbach. “The congressman looks forward to impartial fact-based debates prior to the election,” she wrote. “Due to your frequent political attacks against the congressman, via public statements, on social media, at protests, in front of his office, in meetings directly with the congressman, and elsewhere, it is extremely unlikely that you would be impartial.”

Rabbi Urbach has been critical of Mr. Zeldin. In a social media post from July 2017, for example, she wrote, in part, that the congressman appeared at the South Fork Natural History Museum’s annual gala in Bridgehampton “to glad-hand. But he hasn’t shown up to oppose climate change deniers, protect the [Environmental Protection Agency], and actually preserve our environment.” 

The forum, Rabbi Urbach said in an email on Tuesday, “is sponsored by a large and diverse coalition of mainstream congregations, with questions formulated and posed by their clergy; it’s not about the personal views of any one person. The format is specifically designed to provide a balanced, nonpartisan opportunity for the candidates to share their moral commitments with voters. Our goal is to bring issues of morality, character, and ethics into the public conversation, and everyone involved genuinely wants to hear both candidates’ approaches.” 

To enable the candidates to offer their most thoughtful responses, and in the hope that Mr. Zeldin would be reassured and change his mind, the candidates will be given the questions in advance, the rabbi said.

Correction: The forum will take place on Monday, Aug. 27, not Friday, Aug. 24, as originally reported.