The President Discusses His Faith at New Year Meeting with Rabbis

President Bush marked the Jewish New Year by telling a roomful of rabbis about his faith and how it helped make him a better man.

Some 15 rabbis representing the three main denominations spent an hour at the White House on Monday discussing a range of topics, including Iraq, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, poverty and faith-based initiatives.

Rabbi Steven Pruzanski of Teaneck, N.J., said Bush twice became emotional: while discussing his recent trip to the site of the Auschwitz death camp and when he talked about how people pray for him.

Bush spoke openly about his drinking problem of years past, telling the rabbis that faith played a role in his quitting. He made the remarks in a discussion about faith-based initiatives.

Some of the rabbis described the president as warm and engaging and said he had a firm grasp on the issues.

“I was so impressed by the candor of the president,” said Rabbi Irving Elson, a chaplain and commander in the U.S. Navy. “He exuded confidence in his love of America.”

Elson said he told Bush that Jewish servicemen support his efforts in Iraq. “The message I was asked to bring was ‘Stay the course,’ ” he said.

Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, of Falls Church, Va., said she was disappointed that more of the participants did not challenge Bush on some of his policies, although she said she was grateful for the opportunity to meet with the president.

“I did feel I was sitting with a group who was supportive of the president, who came to praise the president and not to challenge him,” she said.

Schwartzman talked with the president about the recently announced increase in poverty in the united States, saying the rising numbers were of great concern to Jews. When Bush said new jobs would help alleviate poverty, Schwartzman countered that affordable childcare was also needed to allow more working parents to pursue jobs.

“We had a dialogue,” she said.

Rabbi Daniel Nevins, of Farmington Hills, Mich., said he did not feel it was his place to debate the president.

Bush told the rabbis that a new Palestinian leadership would be judged on the “simple formula” of its ability to dismantle terrorist organizations and fight terrorism. Until then, he said,”everything’s on hold.”

The president reportedly made no mention of the “road map” peace plan, co-authored by the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia and which he has pushed for more than a year.

Bush also said he supported the security fence Israel is erecting in the West Bank, which the Palestinians have called a land grab. But he said the fence’s route should not preclude later territorial negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Two rabbis broached the subject of Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who is serving a life sentence for spying on behalf of Israel. Bush said he would look into Pollard’s case, but offered no comment about the chances of him receiving a presidential reprieve.

The White House sought out various pulpit rabbis for the event, instead of leaders of Jewish organizations. The rabbinical organizations were asked to submit names, and the White House selected some participants.

Nevins said Bush was straightforward. “He didn’t pander,” he said.

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