Commentary: An Open Letter to Lena from Ben (Only)
I hope — and I hope that you’ll take me as sincere throughout — that this message finds you and your family well. I can only imagine the rollercoaster you were on these past months.
We don’t know each other that well. Of everyone who signed and funded the Detroit Jewish News ad (“Lena Epstein has chosen a side. It’s not ours.”), I was probably the most peripheral to the youth group world that so many found so formative. I remember being impressed and not a little jealous by the leadership and camaraderie I saw at the sporadic NFTY programming I attended.
Still, I think we have a few things in common. We’re both proud products of this community, both were legacy students at elite schools, both motivated to make names for ourselves back home — neither a shrinking violet.
We served together on the inaugural board of the Detroit Jewish News Foundation. I don’t know about you, but I consider it to be my most meaningful lay leadership. Though you and I disagreed about how best to activate the archives and make them accessible, I respected the value you placed on the JN’s content and your emphasis on sustaining the foundation.
I have to give you credit. I have been tempted to throw my hat in the ring for elected office only to balk at the scrutiny of candidates, the centrifugal force outward from the political center — the cynicism of the whole process. I won’t speculate about your inner monologue along the way, but you showed endurance and tenacity throughout your campaign for Congress.
Over the course of the campaign, you made some choices — even controlling for our political differences — that I didn’t understand. For all of the relevant Jewish texts and values available, I kept coming back to an Islamic teaching I learned during my time at Repair the World: “If a friend among your friends errs, make 70 excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves.”
I imagine the spotlight of such a high-visibility, high-stakes race could seem brilliant or blinding — and feel at times like a warm glow and at others like searing heat.
Will cooler heads prevail now that the midterms are behind us? Lena, you are in a unique position to turn down the heat. Whether you feel burned or burnished by the election, I hope you realize that you can help us reach a more temperate place.
What’s next for you? Happy and healthy holidays with your family, God willing. Then back into the political fray as attention shifts rapidly toward the 2020 ticket?
An earnest and empathetic question for you to consider as you chart your path forward:
Would you make your (valuable) support for the president and the party contingent upon, if nothing else, their consistent condemnation of hate groups and an end to calling the media “the enemy of the people”? Those seem like two reasonable steps toward making civic life civil and safe.
I may be the last person you want advice from. Indeed, it’s a lot easier to put your name on a letter than a ballot. But now that you’re off the rollercoaster, I’d at least encourage you to spend some time in the — our — Jewish News archives. I’ll spare you the cliches about history and just share my own sense of pride in helping to preserve it and of cautious optimism for the future we’re writing.
Republican Lena Epstein lost to Democrat Haley Stevens, 52 percent to 45 percent, in Michigan’s 11th Congressional District in Oakland and western Wayne counties in the Nov. 6, 2018, election.
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