WASHINGTON (JTA) – Saying it is their duty to “fight for the truth and against Lashon Hara,” more than 400 rabbis have joined to back Barack Obama’s presidential bid in what is believed to be a first-of-its-kind effort.
Rabbis for Obama, officially unveiled last week, is a grass-roots organization formed when two Chicago-area rabbis came to the Democratic candidate’s campaign wanting to help counter the many false rumors that have been spread about him.
“What makes this unique is the lies and smears” were “targeted to the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Sam Gordon of Congregation Sukkat Shalom of Wilmette, Ill., citing the e-mails that falsely claimed Obama was a secret Muslim and educated at a madrassa. “Those of us who knew him felt we had to respond.”
“These attacks that he’s not supportive of Israel are just not true,” said Rabbi Steve Bob of Congregation Etz Chaim in Lombard, Ill.
Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, said he believes Rabbis for Obama is a first in the Jewish community.
“I certainly can remember many newspaper ads that rabbis would sign” backing a candidate, Sarna said, but “I can’t remember another organization with this kind of title.”
Given the increased mix of religion and politics that the United States has seen in the past 20 to 30 years, he added, it is much more likely for such a group to spring up now than it would have been early in the 20th century.
Bob said that he and other members of the organization are interested in publicly speaking – under the Rabbis for Obama banner – on behalf of the Democratic candidate across the country and are currently discussing how to become more involved in key swing states.
The letter the rabbis signed, available on the Web site www.rabbisforobama.com, states that the group backs Obama because “he will best support the issues important to us in the Jewish community.”
In addition to writing that the Democrat is “inspired by Jewish values such as Tikkun Olam and the pursuit of justice,” it states that Obama’s “longstanding, stalwart support for Israel is a testament to his own principles” and that “attempts by some to use Israel as a wedge issue against him – unjustifiably – is dangerous in that it politicizes the pro-Israel position” and has “completely distorted Senator Obama’s record.”
“We are fully aware that a smear campaign against Senator Obama has been waged in the Jewish community, and we feel it is our duty as Jewish leaders to fight for the truth and against Lashon Hara,” reads the missive, using the Hebrew term for evil gossip.
“Senator Obama has been viciously attacked using innuendoes, rumors, and guilt by association, and we urge our fellow American Jews to judge Senator Obama based on his own record and the clear statements he has made about his personal beliefs and principles.”
A Republican Jewish leader found that passage of the letter particularly objectionable.
“It’s irresponsible and unprofessional as rabbis to give a hechsher in accusing us of Lashon Hara,” said Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Brooks said the reference to “guilt by association” seemed to be referring to the RJC’s criticism of Obama’s links to his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and some who have been listed as the Democrat’s foreign policy advisers – two topics that Brooks believes are fair game in the debate over Obama’s record.
Rabbis are listed by their hometowns rather than their synagogue affiliation because, Bob said, the signatories wanted to make it clear they were speaking for themselves and not their institutions. He said none of the rabbis had any intention of discussing their endorsement from the pulpit or writing about it in their synagogue bulletins.
“We’re not doing this as rabbis of synagogues,” he said. “We’re doing this as private citizens” who are rabbis.
“I would never presume to tell congregants how to vote,” Gordon said, adding that he simply wants everyone to make their decisions “based on fact, not on lies.”
Membership includes rabbis from every denomination, although one independent observer said he noticed only a couple of Orthodox rabbis on the list.
Bob and Gordon happen to be old friends from the Reform movement’s rabbinical school, but had approached the campaign independently with their idea and were matched up. While the campaign did provide advice and pass along the names of interested rabbis, the rabbis said they did virtually all of the work on their own.
More than 300 rabbis were part of the group initially, and Bob said another 125 signed on since it became public last week – including Michelle Obama’s rabbi cousin, Capers Funnye.
The Democratic Party and the Obama campaign have made a special effort during the campaign to reach out to faith groups, but Jewish Democratic operative Matt Dorf said the organization and its missive is better seen as part of another strategy.
The Democratic goal is to reach persuadable Jewish voters through the testimony of people in “positions of influence” in the Jewish community – rabbis, Jewish members of Congress and other well-known Jewish figures such as former New York Mayor Ed Koch.
Dan Shapiro, the Jewish outreach director for the Obama campaign, said his team is “delighted to have leaders with credibility” in the Jewish community come forward to “make a difference.”
One rabbi familiar with politics welcomed the rabbinical group.
“I endorse Rabbis for Obama and I endorse Rabbis for McCain,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “I believe religious people ought to be engaged in the public world.”
Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman, who has been critical of mixing religion and politics, said he was OK with the group. Rabbis don’t have to give up their rights, he said.
As long as they’re not endorsing candidates from the pulpit, Foxman said, “I don’t have a problem with it.”
Not all rabbis feel comfortable with publicly endorsing a candidate.
“I feel my personal political views are personal,” said Rabbi Steve Wernick of Adath Israel in Merion Station, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia.
Wernick said he is happy to discuss his views with congregants privately because he already has a relationship with them, but he doesn’t feel it necessary to broadcast his views to those who don’t know him. He stressed, though, that he has no problem with colleagues who signed the letter.
“It’s the way our system is supposed to work,” he said.
One Republican was critical of the rabbis for what he believed was a blurring of the church-state barrier.
“By linking their rabbinical position to a political campaign, they risk the charge of politicizing their positions and erasing the boundaries between church and state, which they typically seek to defend,” said Noam Neusner, a communications consultant who served as liaison to the Jewish community during part of the Bush administration.
Neusner said the Bush campaign did not encourage such a letter or organization of rabbis “because of the sensitivity of the church-state issue.”
Rabbis for Obama may be the first but not the last rabbinical effort backing a presidential candidate this election cycle.
Fred Zeidman, co-chair of the Republican Victory Jewish Coalition, said he spoke to some rabbis earlier this month – and a few days before the unveiling of Rabbis for Obama – who were interested in putting together a similar effort backing GOP candidate Sen. John McCain.