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Rabbi Dennis Shulman, clinical psychologist, is running against incumbant Republican Scott Garret (NJ-5). 
In Their Own Words

Rabbi Dennis Shulman
Candidate for United States Congress.

-- interviewed by Ellen Witman

Dennis Shulman has never been one to shrink from a challenge. Losing his sight at an early age, he was told he would never graduate from high school. He rose to the challenge, graduated from high school while simultaneously supporting his working class family by working in a toy factory, and went on to graduate Magna cum Laude from Brandeis University. After graduate studies at Harvard University, Shulman has led a brilliant career as a clinical psychologist and educator, founding the National Training Program in Contemporary Psychoanalysis at the National Institute for the Psychotherapies, which he continues to serve. Shulman was ordained as a Rabbi in 2003 and currently serves as Associate Rabbi at Havurah Beth Shalom in Alpine, New Jersey.

After winning New Jersey's 5th Congressional District's Democratic primary with 61% of the vote in a three-way race, Shulman is gaining national press coverage as he seeks to unseat Scott Garrett, the Republican incumbent. If elected, he will be the first rabbi in Congress, as well as the first blind Congressman since 1935.

PJV: You are obviously an accomplished teacher, psychologist and rabbi. Why politics?


For the last seven years, I have been watching the direction of the country and I have been truly outraged by many things. I really felt the country had lost its way. In my particular district (NJ-5), this wrong direction is personified by the current incumbent, Scott Garrett . Garrett is out of step with the people in this district, with people in this country, really. There was a real necessity in my mind for a representative who truly represented the interests and views of the people in my district.

PJV: So, as a Rabbi, and with all the political conversation about faith these days, and how important it is to politics, what do you say to voters about your faith and how it informs your political views?

First of all, I would say I have been a persistent and vocal advocate for the separation between Church and State. I have also encouraged interfaith dialog. At the same time, I have never derided those without faith, and respect their non-religious choice. But it is my Jewish tradition -- particularly the writings of the Hebrew prophets, the ethical teachings within the Torah, as well as the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel -- which inspired me to take this political step.

The critical moment, when I think about it, was when I was teaching a course in New York City. I was a Scholar in Residence this past year, in a place in New York City called the Jewish Community Project Downtown and the course I taught was a year course in Abraham Joshua Hechel.

Heschel wrote before he died (in 1972) that to talk about God and not Vietnam was blasphemy. Just as Heschel really felt that the Vietnam War was kind of a critical moment where you had to do something, I felt impelled to do something besides just sit and be inactive in the face of the terrible injustice that you see all around you.

PJV: Well, that certainly was a motivating factor in your decision to move forward.

Actually, it was a motivating factor in pretty much everything I do. It was really the fact that I have been a student of ethics and a teacher of ethics in my life that makes me believe that there are differences between right and wrong, and that there are consequences to our choices and I  feel that Garrett and George Bush have really varied from any kind of ethical way of treating politics.

For example, Garrett has been on the House Financial Services Committee, and while on this committee, he has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from the financial services industry. Well, I believe it does not take a teacher of ethics to know that there is something not right with that picture. You should not be taking money from an industry that you are supposed to be overseeing. That really troubles me. And so I would say that is a basic ethical tradition that says "This is not right!", "This is not right!". When I take my seat in Congress, I have taken a pledge, that I will not take any check from any industry I am supposed to be overseeing in a Congressional committee.

The recent problems in all these markets and institutions prove that Scott Garrett has let down the people of the 5th Congressional District. I have taken a pledge that when I take my seat in Congress I will not take any check from any industry I am supposed to oversee in an assigned Congressional committee.

PJV: Let's follow up on some of Scott Garrett's other votes. He allowed religious groups receiving federal funds to discriminate in hiring based on religion. He also voted against a measure condemning coercive religious proselytizing at the Air Force Academy. He voted in favor of placing the Ten Commandments in the Alabama courtroom and has urged New Jersey public schools to teach Intelligent Design. So Scott Garrett has a very conservative record on Church and State issues. You mentioned your respect for the separation. What do you think needs to be done?

Garrett has taken other critical votes that are equally against the interests of his district, but do not involve direct reference to religion.

  • Garrett supported 24 billion dollars in tax subsidies to gas and oil companies.
  • He voted against aid for Hurricane Katrina victims.
  • He voted against full funding for Head Start.
  • He voted against funding for embryonic stem cell research

PJV: Your opponent has a 100% voting record from the National Right-to-Life Committee and also from the American Conservative Union.

Actually, in the American Conservative Union, he ties with Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN 6) for the conservative voting championship. Northern New Jersey is not rural Indiana. I believe that the 5th district will reject Garrett’s record, once they see he is working against the interests of common people like them.

PJV: Right, but he got re-elected twice, so what do you tell people about your position? Let's start with the Separation of Church and State and I would like to also add in the question of reproductive rights.

I am pro-choice. I believe that there is a moral issue with stem cell research, but the morality is on the side of giving people who are alive today hope for cure and treatment. I could tell you a story about that if you are interested.

PJV: Sure.

One of the reasons I am running for Congress is because of a couple that comes to my Minyan every Saturday morning. He is a prominent psychologist who has written three books. He has had Parkinson's Disease for the last twelve years, and his condition is of course deteriorating over these years. When Garrett described how it was immoral to support federal funding of stem cell research (which may offer hope to restore dopamine function in Parkinson’s patients), all I could see was this man and his wife. Garrett's objection struck me as the wrong side of the question. This was only one of the many things that outraged me not only about Bush and the national direction, but also about Garrett.

PJV: You also mentioned his opposition to Katrina aid. He was one of eleven Representatives to vote against it. How do you think the government should respond to natural disasters and what do you think needs to be done at FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security?

The Federal Government should be a partner in responding to natural disasters. The situation in New Orleans was a social outrage. We still have people living in trailers from the hurricane which happened in 2005.

The federal government should not take the only responsibility, but it should surely be a partner. The Bush administration was either not interested or else they were simply not competent. They watched people die. They watched a city die, and would not take a step. Either way, this is a great indictment of the Administration.

Garrett, adding insult to injury, told Bush to refuse 2007 supplemental aid That was deeply troubling to me, and I think it would be to most people.

PJV: You mentioned Garrett's oil and gas drilling votes. He was the only member of the New Jersey delegation to vote for drilling off of the Jersey shore. What are your views on off-shore drilling and on the need to reduce our reliance on foreign energy?

The issue that has truly outraged me (and this is from many points of view: from an environmental point of view, from an economic point of view and from a national security point of view) is that we are living in a country where the federal government (the Bush Administration) with Garrett's support, has substituted unworkable supply side policies at a time of supply scarcity, for an energy policy that would leave us less dependent on foreign oil, by developing alternatives to oil and gas. This is deeply troubling from so many angles. Garrett and Bush voted in such a way that they did not take Global Warming seriously, nor did they take seriously the fact that we are dependent on foreign sources for oil. They ignored environmental damage from our dependency as well as the economic damage and the national security damage. We are really in bed with some of the worst dictatorships in the world because we are dependent on their oil . Although we have the technological know-how in this country, if the right conditions were established, we could develop alternatives such as solar and wind, of biofuels, and still other alternatives to oil and gas. We have not done that.

PJV: You support the federal government putting money into the development of alternative fuels?

I do. When Bush had an enormous support coming from the country and throughout the world on September 11, 2001, he did not use that day to say "This is the day we must become independent of foreign oil sources." That would have been a perfect day for it, and it's been seven years since that happened, without doing anything to correct the problem Garrett has been one of the cheerleaders for taking such positions. Garrett has received tens of thousands of dollars from the oil and gas industries. These energy companies got 20 billion dollars in subsidies and tax breaks.

PJV: I am really interested in your positions on the issues that are a contrast between you and Garrett. And so let's talk about one other issue, and then I want to talk to you on your life and your life experiences. I would like to know your views on gun laws and the recent Supreme Court decision on overturning the D.C. ban on handguns. Garrett was the only member of the New Jersey delegation to vote against child safety locks. What is your gun control position? Do you feel that the localities or the federal government has the right to regulate them?

We need sensible gun laws in this country. There are people that are hunters, that have licenses, so that would be a general reason not to take a gun away from a person who's using it for hunting. But we do need sensible laws that cover different needs for different localities. That is something that has been lacking. I would differentiate myself from Garrett on this issue: I do advocate child safety locks. I know two people who have been victims of gun accidents because there were no child safety locks. Requiring child safety locks on firearms is a very reasonable safety measure.

PJV: Okay, thank you. Let's change direction a little bit. One of the distinguishing characteristics of your candidacy is your blindness. I understand you lost your vision in secondary school?

I lost my vision gradually through childhood, so it's a little hard to say when I lost my vision. I had no vision in my left eye when I was in kindergarten, but the vision in my right eye deteriorated very slowly, so that I could read regular print until I was in the fourth or fifth grade. I could then only read large print and then finally Braille at 7th or 8th grade. I did not have to carry a cane until I was 15 and by the time I went to Brandeis University in July 1968, I was totally blind. I have no vision. That is how it has been for the last forty years.

PJV: So, you could have gone in one of two different directions. You could have become extremely depressed and felt sorry for yourself and not accomplished a lot. How did you keep yourself moving forward and not allow self-pity to get in your way?

That is a great question.  I took the issues that were presented to me as a challenge. I was a poor kid, growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts, going blind. How was I going to get my papers written so I could graduate from high school? How could I master the subway? I tried to master these challenges each step of the way. I could have gone the depressed route, but well... I don't think I could have.

PJV: Not part of your personality, huh?

Not part of the way I was raised.It certainly did not come from the kind of community institutional support I was getting. For example, one of my first counselors from the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind told me that no blind person chould graduate from a liberal arts college. And my parents and I decided he was an idiot. Luckily, he was promoted, and I then got a new counselor who had a better attitude. So the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (because I was poor and because I was blind) was very instrumental in paying for Brandeis and paying for Harvard.

PJV: That's great.

I was very happy about that. I just did not let a couple of idiots stand in my path.

PJV: Well, you certainly have prevailed in getting yourself significantly educated, both in a liberal arts education, as a psychologist and as a rabbi five years ago. What made you decide to join the rabbinate?

There was kind of an unusual path. For years as a psychologist, I was giving lectures all over the country and talked of psychology mostly to other psychologists and for reasons I don't remember why, about 15 years ago, I started to be very interested in learning more about the psychological perspective on the binding of Isaac in the Akeda. And I just started doing all those lectures at this point, private theories along with other lectures and got hooked. I loved doing the reading, all of the Jewish sources, all the Christian sources, all the Muslim sources, the sources within philosophy, Immanuel Kant, Kierkegard: I was totally hooked. And so that led to an interest in other Biblical stories, and that pretty seemlessly led to my decision that I wanted to broaden my understanding of the Jewish tradition and of ethics generally and, eventually, to my studying to be a rabbi.

PJV: That's very fascinating. And so now you have, in addition to your psychology practice, you're now an Associate Rabbi at Havurah Beth Shalom in Alpine, New Jersey.

Right. I taught for seven years at Hebrew Union College in a co-op program. for serious adult learning. I have done many Scholar-In Residence programs, for instance, a weekend in Montgomery, Alabama. My major pulpit responsibility is leading the Shabbat morning minyan, which I’ve done since December, 2001

PJV: So, you want to be in Congress, and if elected, you would be the first Rabbi in Congress. There have been some ministers and priests, but there has not been a rabbi yet. Do you think that would be a significant event?

I would think so. It would be significant in the effect that there has never been one. It would be significant in the effect of what it means. When I think about being a rabbi, the significance is that I would be a voice, speaking for the ethical tradition. The ethical tradition, of course, is shared by Judaism and other faiths,, I could bring a sense of the Jewish Prophetic ethical tradition that says "This is not okay. What's going on here is not okay. There's something wrong here." And I think I can speak with a more authoritative voice because of my ordination and training.

PJV: However, you would not be the first blind Congressman or Senator.

Yes, there were three of those.

PJV: And certainly Governor David Patterson (D-NY) is a prominent politician who is also blind. Do you think that there are...

David has been a great supporter, right from the beginning. He endorsed us. Even before he became Governor, he endorsed us. It was very nice. He showed up -- it was a surprise -- he showed up at one of our most recent campaign events.

PJV: And do you think that Patterson's service as Governor, or Lieutenant Governor before, paved the way in some respects? Do you think that there are people who feel that being blind will in some way get in the way of service, that it makes you unable to serve your constituents?

I would think that for some people who don't know how I do things. For many people, I am very well aware that I am probably the first blind person they've ever talked to or met with. It is not a popular minority (people who have been blind since childhood). Certainly people who lose their vision in old age are a larger population, but people who have been trained, who train themselves, who function the way I do, remain a relatively small minority. There may be constituents who have questions about my life and my lifestyle and I would be happy to answer those questions.

PJV: Maybe it would be a good education for people like that. But I'm assuming you're a supporter of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Sure. Garrett was one of seventeen Congressmen who opposed the renewal of the ADA.

PJV: And you might have to be sure they make some adjustments in the halls of Congress for disabled people like you.

Yeah, the halls of Congress are pretty accessible. There's one other Congressman who is disabled, Jim Langevin (D-RI 2). 

PJV: Yes, he is in a wheelchair.

He is one of our supporters as well. It has been so heartening and humbling to have received support in this campaign from a whole range of communities -- the disability community, the psychology community, the Jewish community and the progressive community. In fact the support I’ve received from the entire district has been just wonderful. People have gone out of their way to give support -- through volunteer work, through grassroots canvassing, through financial contributions. This wide-ranging support has been very encouraging.

PJV: I see that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee upgraded this race from a safe Republican district to a emerging district.

Yes, this is a district now in play. It has been very wonderful for me because I knew that people would respond -- if we shed some light on who Garrett is and what way he has voted compared to who I am and what I am advocating. People of New Jersey's 5th district have responded exactly as I expected. Part of the good thing about being blind and having an unusual story is that there is a lot of human interest in me in addition to the political story. The district knows about me and Garrett. They realize that Garrett does not represent the people of this district. What many do not realize yet is that he is the most conservative member of the House of Representatives. We live in a terribly busy New York media market. Most people here in the district know more about what Mike Bloomberg eats for breakfast than some congressional race in New Jersey.

I mean the information is there, but you have to look for it. And so it’s not covered in the New York Times, in the media, TV or radio.

PJV: As a Jewish journal, we can't not talk about Israel: do you think we need to change how we deal with the State of Israel and with the Arab-Israeli conflict (to the extent the administration has dealt with it)? Also, has the war in Iraq made the United States and the world safer or less so?

That is interesting, the way you ask the question, you gave the answer: "To the extent that they dealt with it." (laughs).

I absolutely support Israel -- for the sake of America, for the sake of Israel, for the sake of the Jewish people. I am terribly critical of the Bush Administration (and again, of Garrett’s cheerleading and support) for essentially ignoring Israel until about three months ago, and then suddenly turning their attention to it. They should have been paying attention to it from the first day of the Bush Administration through every one of the seven years since the Al Qaeda attack. That has been a terrible lack on the part of the Bush Administration. And I do believe that this is a critical area..

In terms of Iraq, my wife and I were in Israel last October. We had a pre-arranged trip --- before I had even decided to run for Congress. One of the things that became very clear to me talking to everyone (police, taxi-drivers, restaurant and hotel staff) is that they all felt much more vulnerable today than they felt with Saddam. Why? Because the war in Iraq bolstered the power of Iran, and our lack of an energy policy boosted the price of oil, pouring our money into the Iranian treasury. In this way, Iran could be more of a threat to Israel than Iraq ever was. With Hezbollah, with Hamas, with the kind of havoc that they could instigate, the people that I spoke to, the vast majority, are in a much more dangerous situation today than before we ever entered Iraq. So it was very troubling to me to talk to all those people about all that we unleashed in that region.

PJV: Thank you. We have already talked about energy policy and alternative energy, but do you have a vision of what should be done to bring peace to the region?

Well, we have to be involved in a muscular diplomacy. We have to be working through back channels as well as through assertive up-front channels. Seems to me, looking at the history of Israel in the Middle East, the major steps that have been taken are where America served in any capacity to help expedite the peace process. We shouldn’t need to be the lead, but we have to be the expediters. For this recent administration, hat has not been the case, not certainly I would say, as it has to happen. I would say that peace in the region is essential for world peace and security and all of that. I hope that I will be one of many new voices in Congress who will speak to re-energize the peace process in the Middle East.

PJV: Give me your thoughts about seeing Barack Obama getting the nomination in the Democratic Party and where you think we are in terms of race relations and immigrant rights in this country

Well, let me say that the first thing I have been very pleased about is that I am now living at a time when people are generally enthusiastic about the political process. The number of new voters throughout the country in my state and in my district is just startling. I am very hopeful that the Obama-Lautenberg-Shulman ticket energizes young voters in large numbers, and that it will be a ticket for all the people who are looking for a change in direction. That seems to me to be what I keep on hearing from everyone: They are looking for change. We know that with Obama on the ticket, that it's a ticket for change. And so I'm really looking forward to being a part of the general election here. The campaign has already been generating a lot of enthusiasm.

PJV: And just talk a little bit now about diversity in this country, and where you think we are going.

No matter who is elected President, we are at a totally different place today from where we were five years ago. We have now had a woman who came as close as a person can come to be the nominee of the Democratic Party for president. We now have an African-American who is about to be officially nominated as the Democratic Party candidate. I guess that I should add myself to this description of American diversity. We will have the first blind member of Congress in seventy years, and it does not seem to be a large issue in this election.

We are part of a country that has taken some very large steps. I am proud of my country for doing it.

Previous Interviews

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