By Simran Sethi
Here’s how you don’t want to start an interview with the man destined to be the first Rabbi and fourth person with total blindness ever elected to the United States Congress – kvetching. But that’s exactly what I did. Because Dennis Shulman is more than just a man who brings you closer to God, he’s a psychotherapist—my former psychotherapist, to be precise. Dr. Dennis Shulman is running for US Congress in New Jersey’s predominantly suburban, generally conservative 5th Congressional District against two-term Republican incumbent Scott Garrett. Our tangled state of affairs inspired the Rabbi to get off the couch and put skin in the game. His history makes him an unlikely candidate, but has also provided the wisdom and fortitude that gives him a solid chance of winning his district. And his PhD in Clinical Psychology from Harvard University is assured to come in handy managing the crazy-making on Capital Hill.
How are you?
I’m great. I’m putting all the things I care about into political action, and talking about how things matter to me the most. I’m humbled by the amount of support—the money, volunteers and sweat equity—I’ve gotten.
Doctor, Rabbi, Congressman Shulman….Which identity do you wear first?
I think they all go together. Each one led me to the next. My interest in Abraham Joshua Heschel—my hero—led me to psychotherapy. The psychologist led me to be the rabbi. And then my love of Heschel led me to the moment when I felt like I had to run. All these roles have to do with problem-solving. Life as a blind person has to do with problem-solving.
How do you feel about your disability being emphasized in the media?
I feel fine about it. It’s an important part of who I am. David Patterson endorsed me early and a friend commented that, ‘Blindness is the new gay.’ Blindness makes me aware of suffering—to struggle with challenges and be able to transcend them. It’s an important part of this campaign. The story is part of the politics, as well—of someone who has met challenges and gotten through them. And I know most of the people I’m meeting have never met a blind person before. I think it gives a larger profile to people who are disabled and is an inspiration to everyone.
You’ve been blind since childhood, but graduated third in your class in high school, graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis University, got a PhD from Harvard University in four years, were the founding director of the National Training Program in Contemporary Psychoanalysis at the National Institute for the Psychotherapies…
You’re making me blush.
I’m not done yet. You’re a full-time therapist and rabbi, and now the Democratic nominee for Congress in New Jersey’s 5th Congressional district. How would you counsel someone coming into your office saying they wanted to achieve everything you want to achieve?
I’d say, go for it. Of course you have to examine the situation and ask, ‘What is the nature of the drive? What will I have to give up to achieve it all?’ The major thing I said to myself is the big difference between achieving and not is the assumption I made that all problems are solvable. I was in graduate school for psychology. I had to give IQ tests to sighted kids. I made the assumption that the problem was solvable. I mean, it took 12 hours, but I did not want to do less than my peers or fail the class. I did it. I feel the same way about my country. When I look at the civil rights movements for African-Americans, gays and women. People who loved this country have changed it.
The Jewish Funds for Justice did an online survey a year ago asking readers to name the top five issues they would include on a Jewish domestic agenda. Of the 8,600 people who responded, they named health care as the top domestic issue. You say that, if elected, you’ll work with both Democrats and Republicans to improve health care access and lower prices. How do you propose to do this?
Listen, I’m just one member of Congress but I think the plans out there are pretty good. Hopefully with a Democratic Congress and President, nothing will stop us. Between the Obama/ Clinton and Medicare for All initiatives we have a lot to work with. [The Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Bill would create a publicly financed, privately delivered health care program that expands the pre-existing Medicare program to all U.S. residents, regardless of one’s employment, income, or health care status.] I hope as a member of Congress and psychologist to work for mental health parity. Our returning vets are facing a major struggle in regard to the psychiatric and psychological effects of this war.
What do you think about sharing the ticket with Obama?
We reflect the same kind of sensibilities and attributes. People are sick, heartbroken and outraged that, as a nation, we’ve lost our way. This is a candidacy of change.
In your interview with Jeffrey Toobin for The New Yorker, you said that, “Even with two careers, you were restless.” You said that Abraham Joshua Heschel’s teachings inspired you to do more and enter the political fray—and that your wife Pam was tired of you throwing shoes at the television.
I lied. I don’t actually wear my shoes when I watch TV. [Laughs.] Do you want to know the precise moment I knew? I mean, there were lots of moments leading up to it, like the issue of stem cell research. Someone who attends our morning minyan has Parkinson’s disease. Scott Garrett said it wasn’t moral to support funding for stem cell research. I strongly disagree.
Who inspires you to want to fix what’s broken?
Martin Luther King, Jr. Robert Kennedy who went through a major transformation in his campaign. Kennedy is a major hero to me. I can remember his death like it was yesterday. I was 18. I can remember where I was going when he was killed. What Martin Luther King, Jr. said about Vietnam and about drawing on ethical values in politics is inspiring. Reverend William Sloane Coffin is another one. He marched with King and Heschel in Selma. I think anyone’s a hero when they speak truth to power and they take a position that basically says, ‘This is not right.’
I’ve sat in the basement of the Alpine Community Center in Alpine, New Jersey for your morning minyans at the Chavurah Beth Shalom. The mean age of the group is probably, what, 70?
It’s getting a lot younger now since the campaign.
We drink industrial-strength coffee, eat bagels, sing, pray, and study. What always strikes me is that it’s so breathtakingly ordinary until you start the meditation.
The whole point of a service is not for division, not to divide the rabbi from the congregation. I feel more comfortable there than in a larger synagogue. We’ve spent seven months talking about the Book of Job. We’ve been taking it slowly, verse by verse. It’s fantastic. We’re up to Chapter 26 of 42 chapters.
So when you win, do you get to swear yourself in?
Pam came up with an idea. I am planning to be sworn in on a Hebrew Braille Bible. She came up with it. Fucking brilliant!
This is how I’m going to end this piece. ‘And then I started to cry, as I have done so many times in the presence of Dr. Shulman.’
[Laughs] You might lose your credibility. Not by saying you went to the minyan, I think that’s a good thing, but by saying you saw me for counseling. They’ll call it transference. [Laughs again]
Thanks to Heather Mueller for research assistance and Danny Goldstein for suggesting questions, introducing me to the Rabbi and giving me lots of good reasons to go to therapy.