WASHINGTON (JTA) — Lena Epstein, a Jewish Republican nominee for Congress in Michigan, defended inviting a Messianic rabbi to honor the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre at a campaign event that featured Vice President Mike Pence.
“I invited the prayer because we must unite as a nation — while embracing our religious differences — in the aftermath of Pennsylvania,” Epstein said in a statement she posted Monday on Twitter after news of the event prompted Jewish outrage on the social networking service.
In the statement, she noted her deep roots in the Detroit Jewish community.
“Any media or political competitor who is attacking me or the vice president is guilty of nothing short of religious intolerance and should be ashamed,” she said.
Loren Jacobs, wearing a tallit, appeared at the campaign event in suburban Detroit headlined by Pence two days after a gunman who said all Jews should be killed shot dead 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue. It was the worst attack on Jews in U.S. history.
“God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God and Father of my Lord and Savior Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah,” Jacobs said, opening the prayer.
“Our nation is so divided right now,” said Jacobs, who was ordained at an evangelical seminary and who uses the title “rabbi.” “The hate-inspired shooting in the synagogue in Pittsburgh is the latest evidence of this. Lord, please work so that instead of division in our nation there is unity and peace.”
The media quoted a spokesman for Pence as saying the vice president did not invite Jacobs.
“He was invited by Lena Epstein to offer a prayer at the event, which he did early in the program,” the statement said. “The VP invited him back on stage to deliver a message of unity. He was not invited by the VP’s office to speak on behalf of the Jewish community.”
Jews across the religious spectrum reject Messianic faiths, which they say peddle Christianity to Jews using some of the superficial trappings and language of Judaism.
A welter of Jews expressed outrage online at Jacobs’ appearance.
“There are over 60 rabbis in Michigan & yet the only rabbi the Michigan [Republican Party] could find to offer a prayer for the 11 Jewish victims in Pittsburgh at the Mike Pence rally was a local Jews for Jesus rabbi?” Rabbi Jason Miller, a Detroit-area rabbi, said on Twitter. “That’s pathetic!”
Epstein is running to replace incumbent Republican Dave Trott in the state’s 11th District, comprising parts of suburban Detroit. Her Democratic opponent, Haley Stevens, is favored to win.
In her statement defending her invitation to Jacobs, Epstein said her daughter became a bat mitzvah at Temple Beth El, a Reform synagogue in suburban Detroit.
CAP: Lena Epstein, a Republican House candidate in Michigan, greets guests during her campaign office’s grand opening event in Commerce Charter Township, May 5, 2018. (Rachel Woolf for The Washington Post via Getty Images)