NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. (JTA) — It’s not easy being a political conservative in the most liberal of Jewish religious denominations.
Just ask the 40 or so people among the more than 5,000 attendees at last week’s biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism who showed up for a session on political conservatism.
“We didn’t know if anyone would come,” said Laurie Silber, a synagogue president from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who organized the session. Only four names appeared ahead of time on the online sign-up sheet.
“When I saw this session on the schedule, I thought it was a joke,” one attendee said. “But I’m glad there’s one or two of us.”
For participants, the lunchtime meeting on the conference’s second day served as something of a griping session, with audience member after audience member standing to blow off steam about the liberal bias among Reform Jews.
But for Reform leaders it was part of a broader effort to project an image of the movement as nonpartisan, as well as to ensure political balance in a conference that featured President Obama as a keynote speaker.
In addition to the lunchtime conversation, which was organized at Silber’s request, the biennial featured a plenary speech by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and a debate between conservative William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, and Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, titled “Liberalism, Conservatism: Which Better Furthers Jewish Values and Jewish Interests?”
Nonpartisanship long has been a challenge in a movement so closely identified with signature Democratic positions such as women’s reproductive rights, gay equality and social welfare issues. The Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s advocacy arm in Washington, takes decidedly liberal stances on issues from health care reform to wars overseas. And in his introduction to Obama’s speech, the movement’s outgoing president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, noted that the president has been a champion for many of the values the Reform movement holds dear, including health care reform and gay rights.
“We stand for economic justice, for a woman’s right to choose, for protecting the vulnerable and the needy, for justice in our land and peace across the globe — the very battles that have been at the center of your vision as president,” Yoffie said.
Not all Reform Jews esteem the same values, however.
“There’s an idea that Reform Judaism must be liberal on every front, and I don’t think that’s true,” said Rabbi Jonathan Siger of the Houston-area Congregation Jewish Community North, in Spring, Texas.
“Tikkun olam doesn’t mean giving away money,” said one participant in the session on conservatism.
“Isn’t there something in the Jewish tradition about people helping themselves?” asked another.
“We can all be for tikkun olam if it doesn’t mean paying for it,” said a third.
More than any other issue, however, participants complained of what they described as the hypocrisy of liberal Reform Jews who preach pluralism and tolerance while disparaging or silencing conservative voices.
“It’s very hard to have a civil discourse,” said a past president of a Reform synagogue in Los Angeles. “They assume everyone is liberal. At least talk and listen.”
A woman from Lehigh Valley, Pa., chimed in, “Trying to even have a discussion is impossible because they will not listen to the facts.”
One man described the attitude of Reform Jews toward political conservatives as “xenophobia.”
In an interview with JTA, Silber recalled posting some conservative comments on a listserv of synagogue presidents and then getting shut out by vocally liberal participants who complained that she was making the discussion too political.
Most of the participants at the Dec. 15 conference session did not seem to be dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. Many proclaimed themselves fiscal conservatives but social liberals. A physician from Fort Worth, Texas, talked about how he voted for Obama because he was concerned that John McCain as president might succumb to melanoma and leave the Oval Office in the hands of Sarah Palin. Another lamented what he called the hijacking of the Republican Party by political extremists. And not one person mentioned any of the Republican candidates for president during the freewheeling discussion.
“My conservatism is economic, in terms of smaller government, individual rights, relationship with Israel,” Siger told JTA. “Socially I’m decidedly progressive.”
A few session participants said that Israel was the key issue that had thrust them into the conservative camp, at least within the Reform movement.
“I have long been unhappy with the debate about Israel in the Reform movement,” said Rabbi David Kaufman of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Des Moines, Iowa. A founder of a group called We Are for Israel, Kaufman was one of five rabbis at the session.
“There are a lot more politically conservative Republican Jews than people think, especially when it comes to Israel,” he said.
But when someone at the session questioned the bona fides of the incoming president of the movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, noting Jacobs’ past affiliations with the New Israel Fund and J Street, Kaufman came to Jacobs’ defense.
“I wouldn’t worry about Rick,” Kaufman said. “He’s good on Israel.”
When The Weekly Standard’s Kristol made a surprise visit to the session, he credited Jacobs for including him, Cantor and Natan Sharansky — a politically conservative former refusenik who is now the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel — on the biennial program.
But there was no mistaking the fact that at least at this conference on the outskirts of Washington, political conservatives were a tiny minority.
“It occurs to me,” Siger said, “that we are the 1 percent.”
(JTA Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this story.)