Area clergy join Rabbis for Obama
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Area clergy join Rabbis for Obama

Saying it is their duty to “fight for the truth and against lashon hara,” more than 400 rabbis have joined to back Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential bid in what is believed to be a first-of-its-kind effort.

They include Rabbis Neal Borovitz, Temple Sholom, River Edge; Debra R. Hachen, Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter; Gloria S. Rubin of Oakland, formerly of Temple B’nai Abraham in Meriden, Conn.; Eliezer Diamond and Benjamin Kelsen of Teaneck; and Gordon Gladstone of Temple Beth Am, Bayonne. Also in the group is Rabbi Judith Kummer, formerly of Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood and now of California.

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.

Rabbi Neal Borovitz

“What makes this unique is the lies and smears” were “targeted to the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Sam Gordon of Cong. Sukkat Shalom of Wilmette, Ill., citing the e-mails that falsely claimed Obama was a secret Muslim. “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.

Borovitz, who had heard both Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton speak during the primaries, said, “I have the utmost respect and admiration for Sen. Clinton, but I found Sen. Obama transformative.”

Calling himself “a passionate Zionist and strong supporter of Israel,” he said he was concerned “when I heard some of the early rumors about his approach to Israel. I was very happy to find those were really lies put out by opponents.

“The senator’s support for a free and independent Israel living side-by-side with a Palestinian state is a position with which I concur and the Israeli government concurs.

“Obama is not only transformative but smart,” Borowitz went on. “I want somebody who is smart, who can analyze the complexities, and is willing to delegate and reach out to the best people. That is the overwhelming impression I got of Sen. Obama. He’s a good community organizer who is going to organize a community of people who are going to work together. Under President Obama, we’re going to see a renewal of the spirit of volunteerism I felt as a young kid. It’s what can I do for my country as well as what can my country do for me, and for others.”

Rabbi Debra Hachen

Hachen said, “I want to do my part to elect a president who … will take this country in the direction it needs to go: a place of respect on the world stage; who values human dignity and diversity here at home; and whose government will put health care, education, and the environment high on its agenda.”

She also believes that Rabbis for Obama can help alleviate the fears that one party is more pro-Israel than another.

Rubin, who was The Jewish Standard’s Arts & Leisure editor before entering the rabbinate, said, “First of all, I believe in his candidacy. Second of all, there have been rumors and innuendos targeting the Jewish community…. I felt in this atmosphere, it was important for rabbis to stand up and say, ‘We support Obama.'”

Rubin, who recently left her pulpit to concentrate on writing projects, said that she is “comfortable with [Obama’s] voting record on Israel. He’s voted in favor of foreign aid to Israel every time, he signed on to numerous pro-Israel letters and resolutions, and in the state senate he co-sponsored a resolution authorizing the State of Illinois to invest in Israel Bonds. I see him as a candidate who understands the strong ties between the United States and Israel but who will help work toward solutions to the Middle East situation.”

What about Obama’s association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who has been accused of “inflammatory rhetoric”?

“I believe Obama is intelligent enough to be discerning,” she answered. “He said he doesn’t accept everything that man has said. When somebody has been an important influence in your life, I think it’s to Obama’s credit that he did not immediately disavow any relationship with him.”

The letter the rabbis signed, available on the Website www.rabbisforobama.com, states that the group backs Obama because “he will best support the issues important to us in the Jewish community.”

The letter, besides averring that Obama is “inspired by Jewish values such as Tikkun Olam and the pursuit of justice,” 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 letter, using the Hebrew term for evil gossip.

“Senator Obama has been viciously attacked using innuendos, 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 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.

In the letter rabbis are listed by their hometowns rather than their synagogue affiliations 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.

Membership includes rabbis from every denomination, although one independent observer said he noticed only a few Orthodox rabbis on the list.

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.

JTA/Jewish Standard

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