Who was the mystery MAGA rabbi who prayed with Trump? We found him — but big questions remain

Who was the mystery MAGA rabbi who prayed with Trump? We found him — but big questions remain

On the afternoon of June 13, Donald J. Trump sauntered into Versailles, the legendary Cuban restaurant in Miami’s Little Havana, for what was the first post-arraignment wrap party in the history of the American presidency. Once inside, he paused to huddle for two prayers with two men. 

The first cleric who blessed Trump was quickly identified by the media. He is a right-wing evangelical Christian pastor named Mario Bramnick. We’ll familiarize ourselves with his global political activism in a moment. 

The second man to bless Trump was, in most news reports, identified as a “rabbi,” presumably because he was wearing a large black kippah or Jewish skullcap. His invocation began with a few words in ritualistic Hebrew. He then switched to rapid-fire Spanish.

This man was not named in any of the original media reports. On Twitter no one seemed to know who he was. On YouTube he was briefly (but incorrectly) identified as a prominent Miami rabbi — whose synagogue, ironically enough, is an ally of the city’s LGBTQ community. 

Over the past week, a small group of political and media observers in the American Jewish community have been resolutely DM-ing one another the same question: Who the hell was that guy? Strangely, neither the Jewish-American media nor mainstream American news organizations made much of an effort to find out. 

But I, for some reason, did. Maybe that’s because everything about the man with the ostentatious kippah extolling Trump’s virtues set off the alarm bells on my Jewdar. Even as I watched the images of that prayer circle in real time, something seemed, well, unkosher. 

Like some tenured, landlocked Captain Ahab, I spent the entire week maniacally consulting with an equally agitated crew of scholars, undergrads, Cubans, Jubans, journalists, rabbis and one very committed lawyer in Miami. All of us, including my two research assistants (Ria Pradhan and our translator, Juan P. Espinosa) went deep down the rabbi/t hole of trying to figure out who this Mystery MAGA rabbi really was. 

Nothing panned out. An earlier version of this article nearly went out on Thursday morning with the (admittedly disappointing) conclusion that even though I could not name this man, I was 99% convinced that he was not a Jew according to normative canons of Jewish law (known as halakha) but rather a type of Christian known as a Messianic Jew. I’ll explain the difference between the two in a moment, and the relevance of this distinction for both the American political context and contemporary Judaism. 

But then a secular miracle occurred. Thanks to some relatively old-fashioned reporting from my colleagues at Salon, we have now identified the second man blessing Donald Trump at Versailles. 

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His name is Isaac Aretuo (also known as Alex Isaac Aretuo and Alejandro Isaac Aretuo). He is affiliated with Congregation Najamu Ami in Miami, which explains itself this way on Instagram: “Somos una Comunidad Judío Creyente (Yeshua) ישוע Creemos en un solo dios y en Yeshua como el Meshiah” (“We are a Jewish Yeshua Community. We believe in one God and in Jesus as his Messiah.”) As far as I can tell, Aretuo refers to himself as a “teacher” or “master” rather than a rabbi. As I predicted (God is my witness here, BTW) he is a Messianic Jew.

Aretuo was certainly not concealing his participation in last week’s ceremony, which makes it even more mysterious that mainstream media couldn’t find him. On his Instagram account a few days back he offered this witness (and video) of the scene:

There were many motorcycles and vehicles at the place. He [Trump] had not even gotten out of his car when I felt something, something spiritual.. . Another thing I noticed was his impressive character. But his heart… I, who had the opportunity to be with him, touch him, and he was looking me in the eye, realized that in the media, Trump seems to be a very tough person but his heart is totally sensitive. A heart that is being put on trial. He was coming back [from court] but when he entered [the restaurant], his smile and excitement after people sang happy birthday to him… he had to look the other way because he got too excited. He is very docile, very sensitive. 

So who are Messianic Jews? Put most simply, they are evangelical Christians who identify as Jewish while proclaiming the divinity of Jesus Christ. That conviction places them well outside the boundaries of halakah, which is why no major Jewish denomination recognizes them as Jewish. 

These Christians generally subscribe to some form of “replacement” or “supersessionist” theology. They believe that Judaism has been disgraced in God’s eyes. In their view, the Lord has turned his back on the stiff-necked Jewish people and redirected His love to them (i.e., to Christians and/or to Christians who identify as Jews). 

Messianic Jews exist in a variety of iterations, with “Jews for Jesus” being only the most familiar. Nowadays, many of them pray in Hebrew. Some even dress and groom themselves like ultra-Orthodox Jews (an act of appropriation which many in the latter group find deeply upsetting). Check out Najamu Ami’s house band — which shreds! — to get a sense of the vibe. Messianic Jews also sometimes overlap theologically (but less so, vibe-wise) with Judaizing evangelical Christians, who might do things like bring shofars (a Jewish ritual instrument) to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Many Messianic Jews present themselves as “philo-semitic”; that is, they claim to love Jews. So much so that they want to convert them. Today’s Messianists descend from Judeophobic strains in Christianity that reach back to antiquity. In this country, Messianic Jews have long been a tiny and obscure subset of American Christianity. 

They no longer are. And here is where our “very docile, very sensitive” former president comes in, as inevitably he must.  

Did an indicted American president just roll into a Cuban restaurant and procure a “Jewish” blessing, in Jesus’ name, from a “rabbi,” so designated without comment by the New York Times and the Washington Post? Did that really happen? It did.

Donald J. Trump is like the conjurer of a national apocalyptic seance. He is a medium who summons the spirits of malign or marginal ideas and centers (or re-centers) them in American public discourse. He didn’t invent white supremacy. He validated it, normalized it and conjured it (back) into the epicenter of the nation’s politics. He didn’t invent African-American ultra-conservatism. He platformed and drew attention to figures like Diamond and Silk, Candace Owens and Michael the Black Man (founder of “Blacks for Trump”). In this and so many other ways, Trump took players on the fringes and thrust them back into the game.

It’s much the same story with Messianic Jews. In 2015, Trump received the blessing of the Messianic rabbi Kirt Schneider at a campaign event featuring leading evangelicals. One of Trump’s most dogged lawyers during his first impeachment was Jay Sekulow, a fierce anti-secular jurist and a Messianic Jew. During Trump’s presidency, groups like the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America entered (or at least approached) the corridors of power, advocating policies that supported Israel’s hard-right government. 

Now let’s return to the scene at Versailles in Miami. It begins when the first cleric, Pastor Bramnick, blesses Trump. His backstory is quite germane to this tale.  When not schmoozing with assorted right-wing strongmen in South America (such as former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro), or importing the American religious right’s worldview into El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, or encouraging the governments of those countries to relocate their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Pastor Bramnick serves as President of the Hispanic Israel Leadership Coalition. 

In his ministry and preaching, Bramnick focuses a lot on Jews. He makes supersessionist declarations such as “God spoke to us and he said ‘I’m pouring out my glory upon the church to provoke the Jewish people to jealousy.'” 

Pastor Bramnick finished his prayer for Trump, and he handed off praise duties to the man we now know was Isaac Aretuo. Before we identified him on Wednesday evening, I had to concede that the mystery MAGA rabbi could theoretically be a Jew.  Trump, after all, received roughly 30 percent of the Jewish vote in 2020 (up from 24% in 2016). In Israel, his popularity ratings are astronomically high among the ultra-Orthodox and settler movements. There are more than a few rabbis out there who avidly support Trump.

But this “rabbi” at Versailles did a variety of things that few rabbis, especially the primarily Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox rabbis who back Trump, would ever do. They would be strongly disinclined to hang out in a veritable cathedral of ham and pork delicacies like Versailles. They would not call out “Amen!” in response to Pastor Bramnick’s invocation of Jesus. They’d be very uncomfortable being touched by, or even standing next to, that woman dressed in red. (She has been identified as Trump advocate Carinés Moncada). And even the most MAGA-friendly of rabbis would think twice about blessing Donald Trump half an hour after he entered not guilty pleas in response to 37 felony charges.

Which brings us to the kicker. Although the audio is not crystal-clear, most Spanish-speaking listeners I consulted agree that the mystery “rabbi” exclaims: “En el nombre de Jesús lo declaramos libre de toda maldición…” (“In the name of Jesus, we declare you free from all curses…”). That would be a pretty strong tell — but given the audio quality, I still couldn’t say, with 100% confidence, that this man was not Jewish. Now, of course, I can.

As usual in the era of Trump we are left asking, “Did this actually happen?” Did an indicted American president just triumphantly roll into a Ham Bar and procure a “Jewish” blessing, in Jesus’ name, from a “rabbi,” so designated without comment by the New York Times and the Washington Post? Did that just happen?  

It did. And there are lessons to be learned. News organizations — many of which I admire for their work in trying to save the republic during the Trump presidency — need to tweak their protocols. When reporting on clergy or faith groups conjured up during Trump’s trance, they must be on the lookout for fake electors, if you will. 

As for Judaism, this episode raises really difficult and divisive questions. Indeed, they are so difficult and divisive that I wonder whether the Jewish community and its most prominent media organs are reluctant to revisit them. Right-wing Jews are deeply enmeshed with supersessionist evangelical pastors such as Bramnick, and with Messianic Jews such as Aretuo. Why? Because those folks enthusiastically support the positions of Israel’s hard-right governments, positions the Trump administration did much to advance. 

I implore my coreligionists to select their bedfellows more carefully. Indeed, Aretuo and Bramnick may have done us a favor by calling attention to an unsettling truth: These allies genuinely and fervently believe that Jews will ultimately disappear, either through mass conversion or divine annihilation. Summoned up and re-platformed by Donald Trump, they long to turn their theological fantasy of Judaism’s disappearance into a political reality.

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from Jacques Berlinerblau