WASHINGTON (JTA) – Small c, meet capital C.
With the Conservative Jewish movement set to hold its Rabbinical Assembly convention here next month, the agenda reads like a who’s who of the U.S. conservative political movement.
The assembly’s chief honoree is John Roberts, the U.S. Supreme Court chief justice whose appointment in 2006 marked what was perhaps President Bush’s signal achievement as a conservative president.
Other speakers at the convention of the Conservative Jewish movement’s rabbinical association include such leading Jewish neo-conservative lights as Charles Krauthammer, the Washington Post columnist; Ruth Wisse, the Harvard University Yiddishist; and David Brooks, The New York Times columnist. U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), one of the Senate’s leading religious conservatives, also will be there.
The conference’s organizer, Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, said if there was an imbalance, it was simply a matter of who was available. Organizers strove for balance, he said.
“We have no control over who accepts the invitations and we invited a broad array of individuals of commentators to participate in our conversation,” said Weinblatt, of B’nai Tzedek congregation in Potomac, Md.
He noted for instance that Donna Brazile, a top Democratic strategist, had expressed regrets.
Weinblatt added that he had just secured as the closing speaker Jacques Berlinerblau, the author of “Thumpin’ It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today’s Presidential Politics.”
Still, it’s an unusual lineup for a religious movement that has sided mostly with Democrats on domestic issues and last year came close to excoriating the Bush administration on the Iraq war. The Conservative Jewish movement backs reproductive rights; Brownback is among the Senate’s most vocal opponents of abortion.
No one is complaining, at least not on the record. Participants say it’s understood that when it comes to Washington convention RSVPs, sometimes a convention will skew one way or another.
Organizers would not name all the invitees who turned down the group, but along with Brazile they noted including some of the Democratic Party’s leadership in Congress. Democrats, who are now controlling Congress, are less likely to have the time to attend a convention than the opposition Republicans.
That made sense to Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Va., who is known for his affiliation with liberal causes.
“We found much less resonance on the Democratic-progressive side of the scale,” said Moline, who was not on the conference organizing committee but was asked to issue invitations to the Feb. 10-14 gathering.
Roberts’ invitation and honor – he’ll receive the Rabbinical Assembly’s Truth and Justice Award – is more about the office than the man, the movement’s leaders said.
“The man is chief justice of the United States,” Moline said. “I think it’s an honor the same way it would be an honor if President Bush would speak. I would be delighted if President Bush came to speak with us in spite of the fact I agree with him on nothing.”
United Synagogue, the Rabbinical Assembly’s affiliated congregational umbrella, declared Roberts “qualified” for chief justice when Bush announced his appointment in 2005. Roberts’ majority ruling last year rolling back some abortion protections unsettled many Jewish groups.
Weinblatt said Roberts, who since his confirmation as chief justice rarely makes public addresses, was a “coup.”
“We’re very fortunate that the chief justice of the United States will be making a very rare appearance, and it just so happens that he is a conservative,” he said.
Rabbi Jeff Wohlberg of Washington’s Adas Israel synagogue, who is slated to be installed as the Rabbinical Assembly’s president during the convention, acknowledged some misgivings about Roberts.
“There are concerns,” Wohlberg said, “but it’s not so much that we honor him for what he’s done and represents personally. We want to honor who he is and what he represents in the aggregate: the element of justice and fairness and concern for equity that we emphasize. He is, after all, the chief justice.”
It’s a point accepted by one of the more liberal speakers at the conference, Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.
Saperstein said he sympathized with the “painful” process of trying to get a balance at a conference, and he noted that one can honor justices like Roberts or his conservative colleague Antonin Scalia without agreeing with them.
“Do I agree with their judicial rulings? No. Are they great justices? Yes,” Saperstein said.
He noted that liberal and progressive views would be showcased to participating rabbis during a briefing day on Capitol Hill Feb. 11.
Democrats expected to attend that session include Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, Jane Harman (D-Calif) and Rep Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), as well as Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).
That lineup alone should assuage concerns about a tilt, Weinblatt said, adding that those figures “would be very surprised to be described as conservatives.”