Will a rabbi’s blessing help Barack Obama? What about 300 rabbis? And will the IRS find this arrangement kosher?
“Rather than sit and yell at my television, I thought there was an opportunity to do something,” said Rabbi Steven Bob of Congregation Etz Chaim in Lombard, Ill, in the western suburbs of Chicago.
Rabbis for Obama, a grassroots group of 368 rabbis as of Thursday, Sept. 11, from Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist synagogues across the country who hope that by lending their support to the Democratic nominee they can persuade other Jews to back him too, is the brainchild of Bob and Rabbi Sam Gordon of Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Ill.
The push, which they say is independent of their synagogues [“I’m not using any of the platforms provided me by the synagogue, neither the bulletin or the bima. This is me doing this personally,” Bob said], is believed to be the largest organized effort by Jewish leaders to support one candidate or presidential ticket. Rabbis have taken out newspaper ads and spoken for or against candidates, but Jewish historians cannot recall a comparable effort.
Their synagogues are not endorsing a candidate, which could lead to the IRS revoking their non-profit status. In announcing their support, Rabbis for Obama announced only the rabbis’ names and hometowns – without their synagogues - to avoid the implication that the synagogues are backing Obama.
What clergy can or can’t say to the congregations about the candidates or issues was a topic raised during a panel discussion at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last month. Several experts on the law said that clergy can discuss issues and the campaigns from the pulpit, but warned they need to be careful not to indicate their support for a particular candidate.
Prominent rabbis in the group include Rabbi Elliot Dorf of Los Angeles, Rabbi Jack Moline of Alexandria, Va, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention, Rabbi Burton Visotzky of New York, Rabbi Janet Marder of Palo Alto, Calif., and Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus of Homewood, Ill.
The rabbis felt moved to take an active role in the presidential campaign because of what they saw as a unique opportunity to influence the outcome of an election in which Jewish voters are receiving more attention than they can recall in any recent election.
Believing that Obama and Republican John McCain are equally “pro-Israel,” it was domestic issues such as abortion, separation of church and state that were “gigantic issues” that factored into their decision to publicly support Obama, according to Bob.
“If the question is Israel, I think it’s evidently clear that the differences on the two are very, very small,” Bob said.
Keeping kosher may be a challenge for religious delegates attending this week’s Democratic National Convention in Denver.
There are kosher options at catered events held in the Colorado Convention Center, where many daytime panels, forums and caucuses are held, as well as at the Pepsi Center, location of the primetime convention program.
But for average delegates not invited to these event or receptions, the food pickings may be slim.
Pepsi Center food stands sell hot dogs, deli sandwiches, popcorn, pizza and other snacks.
One vendor I found offers a $7 beef brisket sandwich. Asked whether it was kosher, a worker posited that “it’s beef,” but he wasn’t really sure. Of course, the same vendor was offering pulled pork sandwiches at the same stand.
In case you’re wondering, the beef brisket was cold and the meat was over-cooked and hard.
UPDATED 7:02 p.m. Mountain Time
Much has been made of the balancing act that Barack Obama’s campaign has had to walk as it tries to honor and respect Bill and Hillary Clinton without detracting from what should be Obama’s moment during this week’s Democratic National Convention. But the role of another former president is proving equally vexing.
The inclusion of former President Jimmy Carter during tonight’s Democratic National Convention program has created an awkward situation for Democrats, who don’t want to slight a former Democratic president but also fear offending Jewish voters and other Israel supporters.
Carter has called Israel’s treatment of Palestinians “one of the greatest human rights crimes on earth,” as the Republican Jewish Coalition reminded in a news release calling on Democrats to pull Carter from tonight’s convention line-up.
“Jimmy Carter’s long history of anti-Israel bias has rendered him unfit to address the Democratic Convention,” RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks said in a statement.
Democrats’ solution: Carter’s contributions were recognized during a tribute video on his recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but he had no speaking role.
In his taped remarks, Carter predicted an Obama administration would do more to help the poor.
The former president and former First Lady Rossalyn Carter received a warm reception and the first standing ovation of the night from delegates when they walked onto the convention stage and the sounds of Ray Charles’ “Georgia on my Mind” filled the Pepsi Center.
That didn’t sit well with all delegates such as Florida state Sen. Nan H. Rich.
“He hasn’t shown respect to Israel and many of the Jewish constituencies here based on the things he has done,” said the Florida delegate who planned to walk out of the convention hall.
Rich said she respects the presidency, but not Carter.
Carter was originally scheduled to address delegates. Some Jewish leaders saw the change in plans as an effort by Democratic officials to address concerns about Carter.
“If we didn’t matter they wouldn’t have all this focus and preoccupation on Carter’s speaking,” Rabbi Marc Schneier said this morning, adding that “It’s a backward compliment to the Jewish community.”
“If there’s anything positive it’s that the Obama campaign acknowledges how much of a lightening rod Jimmy Carter is within the Jewish community,” he said.
Of course, a lot will depend on what Carter has to say, according to Schneier and other Jewish leaders who hope the former president will steer clear of foreign policy matters.
It sounds like the start of a joke: A Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam, a Catholic and a Buddhist stood up at the Democratic National Convention.
Such a scenario was unthinkable just four years ago. But as Democrats begin their national nominating convention here in Denver, such a scene was not only non-fiction, but representative of the major push by Democrats to embrace faith and religion, and bridge what’s become known as the “God gap,” an issue long ago ceded to the Republican Party.
While the Rev. Leah D. Daughtry, CEO of the Democratic National Convention and a fifth-generation Pentecostal pastor from Washington, D.C., pointedly noted that “We didn’t need to bring faith to the Democratic Party, faith was already here. Democrats are, have been and will continue to be people of faith.” The fact that the “Faith In Action” interfaith gathering was taking place let alone the convention’s first official event says a lot about how far Democrats have come and how far they are going to try to reach out to religious voters.
The 2004 presidential election, in which evangelical and other so-called faith voters proved critical to President Bush’s re-election, and the election of Democrats who embraced religion as they ran for governor, U.S. Senate and Congress in states such as Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, proved a key turning point for the Democratic Party.
In sharp contrast to the Republican Party, which critics complain has become dominated by evangelicals, Democrats took pains to show they are more inclusive and tolerant of diversity as they try to broaden their coalition and reach out to religious voters.
That was on display from the start of today’s interfaith ceremony that drew several hundreds to the Wells Fargo Theater at the Colorado Convention Center. Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of the Reform synagogue Rodef Shalom of Falls Church, Va., joined with the Rev. Lucia Guzman, director of Human Rights/Community Relations in Denver; Imam Mohammad Mardini of the American Muslim Center in Dearborn, Mich.; and Dr. Patrick Whelan, president of the Boston-based group Catholic Democrats for the opening prayer.
Democratic delegates and party leaders have begun streaming into the Mile High City for a week of parties, fundraisers, concerts, panel discussions and, oh yes, the very much scripted convention itself that will culminate with Barack Obama becoming the Democratic nominee Thursday night.
Here’s a rundown of some of the events that might be of interest to voters concerned about Jewish issues: