A congregational rabbi’s reflections 8 years after the landmark Citizens United Supreme Court ruling changed her world.
FROM THE DIARY OF RABBI HELEN BLOTZ-KUGELMEISTER
It happened on a sunny April afternoon – the day I first met with one of the new kind of congregants who’d been joining our synagogue recently. The truth was I had been nervous about meeting with one of them for more than a casual hello. Our Senior Rabbi, my mentor, Mervin Snubelman, had told me that it was only a matter of time before we had to start counseling and officiating at life cycle events for these new people, and we needed to handle it well.
My assistant had booked the appointment after receiving an email from Bergman-Schneider, Inc., saying that the multi-billion dollar conglomerate would like to meet with me to discuss a personal matter. Ever since the truth that corporations are people was finally recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, Rabbi Snubelman and I had been reflecting on the greatness of America, which despite its many flaws, seems to find a way to extend equality and human rights to wider and wider circles of people over time.
Of course, Snubelman and I talked about how we also had to confront our own toxic upbringings regarding corporate personhood. After all, we had grown up in a society that for centuries had denied that corporations were people. Corporations had lived among us, worked with us, even employed many of us, and yet we had denied them their humanity. Even though Snubelman and I had been supportive of the movement to right this wrong, we still had been infected by a stubborn and structural anti-corporate racism.
Anyway, Snubelman had told me that whenever the first corporate congregant to seek pastoral help would come to me, I should carry on as I would with any other person and not overthink it. Now that Bergman-Schneider, Inc. had asked for an appointment, I had to step up and be the rabbi I had trained to be.
It all started off rather typically. Bergman-Schneider, Inc. came into my office and nervously took a seat. “Rabbi, I need help.”
“What’s on your mind?” I asked.
“I’m about to give birth to another corporation,” Bergman-Schneider, Inc. said. I tried to smile hopefully, but distress clearly registered on Bergman-Schneider, Inc.’s face. My heart was stirred. Bergman-Schneider, Inc. was carrying a heavy burden.
“Anyway, the reason I’m here is . . . well, I’m not sure what religion my own offspring is going to be, and I’m losing sleep over it. I know that must sound strange. I’m not a very religious person – no offense, rabbi – but for reasons I can’t even explain to my Board of Directors, I find that I want to pass on my tradition.”
I had dealt with issues like this before. Sizing up my new congregant, I gently but frankly asked, “Well, what would stop you from raising your child as a Jew?”
“Well,” Bergman-Schneider, Inc. said, avoiding eye contact, “you see… a few years ago I entered into a merger with another corporation.”
I knew where this was going.
Bergman-Schneider, Inc. continued. “A Japanese corporation. A fine, well-organized business with a small debt load and incredible prospects. But… not Jewish. I’ll be honest with you, rabbi. We were so caught up in our incredible synergy, our international market share, and our off shore tax breaks. Ugh. You probably hear this all the time.”
“It’s okay,” I said, gesturing gently to the box of tissues as Bergman-Schneider, Inc.’s eyes started to well up a bit.
“Things were great for the first couple years, and the seed was planted for the upcoming birth, but then… there was the economic downturn, and now our merger has dissolved. Now Hiromichi Corp. has lawyered up and is going for joint ownership of our offshoot corporation – my baby! I can’t just let Hiromichi Corp. indoctrinate the new business entity! Japanese corporate culture is so pervasive – even if I am one of the parent companies, I don’t see how my Jewish traditions stand a chance. Please don’t judge me, rabbi.”
“You know, intermarriage is not exactly a new phenomenon,” I said. “I’m not here to judge you.”
I could tell that I had found my pastoral counseling groove. Bergman-Schneider, Inc. needed help, and I was here to listen, and, however I could, to be a vessel of God’s love for Bergman-Schneider, Inc.
As I continued to listen, I felt profound gratitude for the Citizens United decision that finally recognized the humanity of the person sitting across from me. I thought about the indignity these corporations had endured during centuries of not being treated like people in this country. I pictured the faces of those 5 brave Supreme Court justices whose courage changed that forever. I felt proud that, now, in America, we honor the full personhood of everyone – no matter their race, religion, sexual orientation, or trading price on the NASDAQ.
As Bergman-Schneider, Inc. shed some long pent up tears, I felt a pang of guilt, as I asked myself whether I had done enough to bring about this landmark civil rights advance. Had I preached on the truth of corporate personhood enough, or given enough to those amazing young day traders who took to the streets of the Financial District against cops and tear gas to win this long overdue social change?
I almost lost my focus in the midst of my self-doubt, but I shook myself out of it, remembering that I needed to focus on the person in front of me: BSCRP, who was off 3/8 that day but still trading above analysts’ expectations and, from what I could see, determined to fight hard for that little corporation growing within.
Of course, there were no easy answers. The offshoot corporation may or may not end up identifying Jewishly. I knew it and so did Bergman-Schneider, Inc. There would be complex questions in the future. How would the two parent corporations handle bar/bat mitzvah? (Even Rabbi Snudelman wasn’t sure how to handle the circumcision question in these cases.)
“You know, rabbi,” Bergman-Schneider, Inc. said with a little smile. “I think I didn’t just come here for the sake of the little corporation growing within. I think I came here for myself too. I’m out of touch with my Judaism. Maybe it’s time for me to restructure my org chart.”
“You’re always welcome. Shabbos services are Fridays at 7:00,” I said.
“You just might see me there, rabbi.”
Snudelman would have been proud.