Campaign Confidential

Barack Obama's Rabbi(s)

By Brett Lieberman

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.

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