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A group of 56 Jews who grew up with Republican congressional candidate Lena Epstein are urging the Jewish community to vote for "any other candidate" in next week's election — not Epstein.

Their open letter published in Thursday's Detroit Jewish News is titled "Lena Epstein chose a side. It's not ours." The contemporaries of Epstein's say they felt compelled to "forcefully condemn her embrace of extremism for political gain." 

Epstein, 37, of Bloomfield Township is running for the U.S. House in Michigan's 11th District to succeed retiring GOP Rep. Dave Trott of Birmingham. Her opponent is Democrat Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills. 

Epstein's campaign says the ad is the work of political partisans who hate President Donald Trump, whose campaign she helped co-chair. 

"It is not surprising that an Obama operative recruited people who vehemently dislike President Trump to attack Lena for supporting the president’s policies," said Brad Berry, campaign manager for Epstein. 

"Lena’s Jewish faith should not be questioned, and these attempts at religious division are wrong.”

The group that signed onto the Jewish News ad says they are a diverse collective of Democrats, Republicans and independents who know Epstein from attending school, synagogue or Jewish youth group together. 

They say Epstein, an unapologetic supporter of Trump, has "warmly embraced and exploited Donald Trump's message of hate and xenophobia," including his controversial immigration policy of family separation at the border.

They even suggest Trump's divisive rhetoric might have "emboldened" the shooter who allegedly murdered 11 inside a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday while making anti-Semitic remarks. 

Michael Simon, who helped organize the letter, attended Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills with Epstein when they were young. He said he's not questioning Epstein's faith.

"We’re questioning how you could grow up being taught the same values that we were and reach the same conclusions that she did," said Simon, who now lives in Brooklyn, New York. 

"We just want to be really clear that you can’t cloak yourself in the Jewish community and those values, and stand with Steve Bannon or be for family separation and refuse to criticize people who are coming after George Soros using anti-Semitic tropes."

Simon was referring to some of the language and images Trump has used to suggest Democratic mega-donor Soros, who is Jewish, and others as responsible for the country's ills, as well as the migrant caravan headed north to the U.S. border from Honduras. 

The White House has rejected the suggestion that Trump's language might have inspired the synagogue shooter, who had posted often about the caravan.

Simon previously worked for President Barack Obama's campaign doing data analytics.

He said he doesn't speak for the group that signed the ad, but he supports Stevens and plans to knock on doors in the district this weekend to get the word out about the message in the Jewish News ad.  

It's not the first time Simon has spoken out on the congressional race. In June, he urged Franklin Hills Country Club not to associate itself with Epstein's campaign by hosting her fundraiser, which was ultimately held at another venue.  

Berry of Epstein's campaign asked why liberals were "silent" when Garlin Gilchrist, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, had previously tweeted support for Hamas and criticized Israel and Americans' support for the Jewish state.

Gilchrist has since issued a statement that he considers Hamas a terror group and walked back his tweets from 2009.

Simon said Thursday's ad was submitted to the Jewish News prior to the controversy involving Epstein earlier this week after she invited a Messianic Jewish minister to pray at a Michigan rally attended by Vice President Mike Pence in Waterford Township. 

Rabbi Loren Jacobs of the Messianic congregation Shema Yisrael in Bloomfield Hills prayed for the victims of the mass shooting in Pittsburgh, and Pence called him a "leader in the Jewish community here in Michigan." 

However, most Jewish leaders consider Messianic Judaism to be deceptive and not part of the Jewish religion, as followers consider Jesus to be the Messiah. A number of Jews spoke out on social media saying the move was insensitive or offensive.

Under fire, Epstein issued a statement saying she extended the invitation because "we must unite as a nation — while embracing our religious differences — in the aftermath of Pennsylvania." 

She said anyone attacking her or Pence over the prayer is “guilty of nothing short of religious intolerance and should be ashamed. This was an effort at unity, yet some are trying to create needless division to suit their political goals."

Epstein noted she is a fourth-generation member of Temple Beth El and a former board member of the congregation. 

"My family's history as Jews and my commitment to my Jewish faith are beyond question," she wrote. 

mburke@detroitnews.com

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