Campaign Confidential

Obama Chats With 900 Rabbis on Issues and Renewal

By Brett Lieberman

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Rosh Hashanah is more than a week away, but Barack Obama drew upon the High Holy Days themes of renewal and rededication in a conference call with more than 900 rabbis.

“I know that for rabbis this is the busiest time of the year as you prepare for the High Holy Days,” the Democratic presidential candidate told the rabbis on Thursday, according to a statement his campaign provided.

“So I am grateful for a few minutes of your time. I extend my New Years greetings to you and to your congregations and communities. I want to wish everybody a Shana Tovah and I hope that you will convey my wishes to all of those you pray and celebrate with this Rosh Hashanah,” Obama said. “The Jewish New Year is unlike the new years of any other cultures. In part because it’s not simply a time for revelry; it’s a time for what might be called determined rejoicing. A time to put your affairs with other people in order so you can honestly turn to God. A time to recommit to the serious work of tikkun olam―of mending the world.”

Obama was introduced on the call by Rabbi Sam Gordon of Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Ill. and Rabbi Eliott Dorf, vice-chair of the Conservative Movements Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and Professor at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. The two are involved in the new Rabbis for Obama group.

The Illinois Democrat used the call to reiterate his support for Israel.

“I think that it’s also important to recognize that throughout my career in the State Legislature and now in the U.S. Senate I have been a stalwart friend of Israel,” he said, according to his campaign. “On every single issue related to Israel’s security, I have been unwavering, and will continue to be unwavering. My belief is that Israel’s security is sacrosanct and we have to ensure that as the soul democracy in the Middle East, one of our greatest allies in the world, one that shares a special relationship with us and shares our values, we have to make sure that they have the support whether its financial or military to sustain their security and the hostile environment.”

The United States needs to be “an effective partner” with Israel in forging peace with Palestinians and also making clear that possession of nuclear weapons by Iran would be unacceptable.

Several rabbis were allowed to ask questions during the call. Those posing questions, according to the campaign, included: Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg, president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism; Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America; Rabbi Eric Yoffie of the Union of Reform Judaism; and Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, or Orthodox Union, separately reported that Weinreb, the organization’s executive vice president, raised concerns that Obama’s education proposals do not include components for faith-based schools.

According to the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Weinreb: “noted that Senator Obama proposed laudable ideas for improving education in the United States including reforming ‘No Child Left Behind,’ service scholarships for college, and more but that he and the Orthodox Union’s constituency are concerned that Sen. Obama’s proposals don’t seem to contain a component which will assist the tens of thousands of non-public ‘faith-based’ K-12 schools educate their students better. Programs in a number of states - like Pennsylvania, Florida and the Senator’s home state of Illinois - are designed to deliver government supported services to students in nonpublic schools, or to generate greater financial resources for K-12 schools - both public and non-public operate successfully, through tax credits and other options. Rabbi Weinreb asked ‘Do you, Senator Obama, agree that we need new initiatives which will support all K-12 schools and students and what would those be?’”

“Senator Obama responded that one area that is a priority in his education program is early childhood programs aimed at ensuring that children don’t start out behind. Obama stated the funding would likely go through public school districts but ‘it is possible that we could have institutions such as private, faith-based organizations providing that early childhood education.’ The Senator also noted his familiarity with how critical faith based schools are - citing in his hometown of Chicago, the Crown Hebrew Academy, a leading Orthodox Jewish day school in the city. Senator Obama continued that although he ‘opposes vouchers’ he is open to faith based schools providing after school programming, mentoring, tutoring and summer programs, including literacy and math enrichment. Some of these programs are already funded under NCLB and the Senator said such funding would continue under an Obama administration.”

Obama’s response was encouraging, according to Nathan Diament, public policy director at the Orthodox Union.

During the conference call, Obama also invoked the significance of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah as well as as a symbol of the call to action that’s needed to address problems worldwide.

“And I know that the Shofar is going to be blown in your synagogues over Rosh Hashanah and there are many interpretations of its significance,” Obama said, according to his campaign statement. “One that I have heard that resonates with me is rousing us from our slumber so that we recognize our responsibilities and repent for our misdeeds and set out on a better path. The people in every community across this land join our campaign and I like to think that they are sounding that Shofar and to rouse this nation out of its slumber and to compel us to confront our challenges and ensure a better path. It’s a call to action. So as this New Year dawns, I am optimistic about our ability to overcome the challenges we face and the opportunity that we can bring the change we need not only to our nation but also to the world.”


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