Two weeks ago, when the Forward launched its special editorial project America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis, we had no idea what to expect. We asked people of all ages, denominations and backgrounds to nominate a rabbi who has inspired them or who had a profound effect on their lives or in their communities. But would readers respond? Would they take the time to write 200 words about a rabbi? Would we receive stories from a cross-section of American Jews — and would those stories move us? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding YES!
America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis marks the first phase of our year-long investigation into the challenges and changing roles of the American rabbinate. Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner launched this initiative in a recent editorial, in which she addressed the effect our stalled economy has had on job opportunities for both young and old rabbis, as well as the difficulties women face breaking into the all-male Orthodox world — and the difficulties the Reform movement faces attracting men to its synagogues. As she concluded, “defining and sustaining the role of the modern rabbi is one of the most vital challenges before the American Jewish community today.”
Like many Jewish leaders, I have devoted the majority of my professional life to advocating on behalf of my denomination. Sometimes the need is concrete, other times ideological. From supporting the worldwide network of the 600-plus Conservative kehillot to agitating on behalf of a Judaism that is pluralistic, intellectually compelling and rooted in tradition, my religious identity is often inextricable from my personal Jewish “brand.”
Much of this is unavoidable. Not a month goes by without an invitation to speak about a topic of endless fascination to the Jewish public: the current state of Conservative Judaism. Whether joining together with the heads of my sister organizations to construct a wide lens view or honing on a particular geography — I will be moderating a panel discussion on the renaissance of Conservative Judaism on Manhattan’s East Side in December — I declare myself, time and again, a spokesperson for Conservative Judaism.
But I was reminded of the limits of denominationalism this past week in the course of my hastily arranged Solidarity Tour to Israel on Day 7 of Operation Pillar of Defense. Organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, I joined with a group of North American Jewish leaders from United Synagogue to the Union for Reform Judaism to the Orthodox Union to the Jewish Federations of North America and other Zionist groups.
Together, we visited the mayors of the cities most affected by Hamas missiles, the injured civilians and soldiers, the damaged property, the brave Israeli citizens under threat of extinction every single day. Together we met with Israeli president Shimon Peres. Together we boarded buses from Ashkelon to Beer Sheva to Jerusalem, united as Jews, representatives of our denominations, yes, but stripped of the agendas that occupy us back in our offices in North America.
There’s good news and bad news for President Obama in a new survey of American Jewish opinion released Thursday by the Workmen’s Circle. First, the bad news: Jewish voters favor Obama over Mitt Romney by about two to one — 59% to 27%, with 14% undecided. If undecideds follow the same 2-to-1 split, the result will be 68% to 32%. This points to a 10% drop from November 2008, when Obama got 78% of the Jewish vote, according to national exit polls at the time. The good news is that it’s not November yet, and if you compare June 2012 to June 2008, Obama is doing considerably better now than he was then. At this point in 2008 Jews were backing Obama by only 62% to rival John McCain’s 31%, according to Gallup’s tracking poll. Obama dropped further in July 2008, to 61-34, before beginning a steady rise in August. In fact, a surge might already be discernible this year, if we compare the Workmen’s Circle survey with a similar survey released two months ago, April 3, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute for the Nathan Cummings Foundation.
Will the president repeat his 2008 late-summer uptick? Hard to say. Romney isn’t likely to give him the sort of gift McCain offered when he chose the spectacularly unqualified Sarah Palin as his running-mate. On the other hand, everything else in the Workmen’s Circle poll, which was conducted by Professors Steven M. Cohen and Samuel Abrams, points to a Jewish public that remains solidly liberal. Given the starkly conservative cast of the Republican campaign so far, it seems unlikely that Romney could muster more enthusiasm among Jewish voters than the more moderate McCain did in 2008. It could be that distress over Obama’s Israel policies will lower his Jewish support, but both surveys show Israel playing very little role in Jewish voters’ thinking. In fact, Cohen’s statistical analysis of respondents’ preferences and demographic characteristics indicates that people who have strong opinions about Israel tend to show a host of other tendencies that factor as strongly if not more so into their decisions.
In some ways the Workmen’s Circle survey confirms the trends that turned up in the Cummings Foundation survey in April; in other ways the WC sample is more conservative (I’m not sure why, and I won’t speculate right now). In certain ways, both polls — and a third one, the American Jewish Committee annual survey, released April 30 — look remarkably similar. Remarkable, that is, considering that they use different methodologies, draw on different population samples and reflect a variety of sponsors’ ideologies from the upscale liberal Cummings Foundation to the grittier left-liberal Workmen’s Circle to the devoutly centrist AJC.