Off and running

Off and running

Obama confers with Orthodox leaders

President Barack Obama meets with Orthodox leaders. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin is second from the left in the front row, and Rabbi Shalom Baum is at the far right in the back row. Ramaz’s Rabbi Haskel Lookstein is at the far right in the front row. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Rabbis of two area congregations were among the delegation of Orthodox leaders who met with President Barack Obama in the White House last Tuesday.

The meeting followed a visit with Conservative Jewish leadership a week earlier, as the administration steps up its outreach to the Jewish community in this election year.

For Shmuel Goldin, rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood and president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the White House meeting was “an honest dialogue.”

Among the issues of concern the group brought to the White House was the U.S.-Israel relationship, the threat posed by Iran, and the possibility of governmental aid to day school parents.

Goldin said that he asked the president about the peace process. “What have you learned in the past few years that would inform your decisions in the years to come?”

“He spoke a while about that,” Goldin continued. “He said it’s very hard. He said he felt motivated” to push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians “for the sake of Israel, and that he considers himself a friend of Israel. He said he was motivated to move fast” at the beginning of his administration “because he felt at that point [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas was strong enough to deliver a peace agreement. Now he doesn’t think he is. He isn’t certain that he was then.

“I thought that was an honest response.”

Goldin said that what impressed him the most “was the experience, to have this kind of access, to be able to talk openly and honestly with the president.”

He also was affected by the experience of speaking with White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, “who is himself an observant Jew.”

Goldin quoted Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Washington’s most prominent political Orthodox Jew, with whom the group also met, as saying, “If you want to know what’s happening in the White House, come to the early minyan at Georgetown Synagogue” where Lieberman shmoozes with Lew.

Rabbi Shalom Baum of Teaneck’s Congregation Keter Torah said he found the president’s comments on Israel “to be very respectful but also somewhat defensive. He definitely felt the need to state his support for Israel, which I think reflected his impression that the Jewish community has questions about his support. He’s clearly under an impression that there’s a lot of criticism being directed toward him toward being evenhanded with the Israelis and the Palestinians.

“He emphasized that he doesn’t see himself as being split down the middle,” Baum continued. “He sees America’s ongoing commitment to Israel as paramount and that he has a personal pro-Israel stance. I think he came at it being somewhat disturbed that that’s not the way he’s perceived.”

Participants told JTA that Obama insisted that the U.S. posture is pro-Israel, pointing to his calls for making Israel’s security needs paramount in any final-status deal.

They reported the president as saying that his calls to freeze settlement expansion reflected the positions of his four predecessors, and he blamed differences with Israel in part on the historical quirk that sees a centrist U.S. government and a right-wing Israeli government in office at the same time. Obama said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to act without restraints, but that he understood him – most leaders want to act without restraints.

He said that peace was critical as the Arab democracy movement swept the region, but he worries that the Palestinian leadership was no longer as interested in advancing toward peace.

When it came to Israel, Obama asked the group not to doubt his “fidelity” to their cause, according to one participant.

Baum, who is president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, said that one of the group’s top concerns was Israel. When the delegation talked to Lieberman, “we wanted to get a sense from him of how seriously the administration and Congress is taking the threat from Iran, and whether Iran had faith in negotiating with Israel. He communicated with us that there’s a lot of skepticism, both in Congress and the White House, as to whether the negotiations will give lots of fruit.”

Baum said that “one thing emphasized by everyone is the very high level of military cooperation between the administration and the Israeli government.

Obama’s meeting with the Orthodox leaders – whose congregants increasingly tend to favor Republicans – fits in with a strategy that senior Democratic officials have described as tamping down pockets of hostility as much as it is about cultivating the party’s natural base in the Jewish community.

The meeting was friendly, in-depth, and constructive, participants on both sides said.

The Orthodox leaders pressed Obama harder on some issues than their Conservative counterparts did, focusing particularly on how he has handled the U.S.-Israel relationship and on his decision to mandate contraceptive coverage for employees at some religious institutions.

An Orthodox Union official restated the group’s unhappiness with Obama’s decision to require contraceptive coverage for employees at institutions run by religious organizations that are not involved directly in religious activity, such as hospitals and orphanages.

The official noted that the OU did not oppose contraceptive coverage but was concerned that the two-tier system was confusing and represented governmental intrusion into matters of faith. Roman Catholic groups have led the opposition to the mandated coverage, which Obama introduced earlier this year.

Obama, participants reported, said he was proud of his administration’s record of defending religious liberty, but the contraceptive coverage case presented him with a dilemma – how to protect religious freedom and at the same time protect the right of millions of women working at institutions run by religious groups. He defended his solution, exempting such purely religious establishments as churches and providing contraceptive coverage through third-party insurance companies instead of the religious institutions. He said the solution allowed religious people who objected to contraceptive coverage not to participate but simply to tolerate passively the fact that others will receive the coverage.

Asked about assistance for students in religious schools, Obama said he was open to expanding federal assistance to such schools.

The talk with Obama lasted 45 minutes, and ended when the group presented Obama with a framed reproduction of George Washington’s letter to the Jews. The group then moved from the Roosevelt conference room to the Oval Office for a photo.

Along with Goldin and Baum, participants included much of the OU’s leadership: its president, Simcha Katz; its managing director, Rabbi Steven Burg; its Washington director, Nathan Diament, and its public policy chairman, Yehuda Neuberger. Other attendees included Richard Joel, the president of Yeshiva University; Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the director of the American Friends of Lubavitch; Solomon Werdiger, a member of Agudath Israel of America’s board of trustees; Aaron Kotler, CEO of Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, and rabbis of leading Orthodox shuls, including Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehillath Jeshurun in New York City and Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida.

“We are deeply appreciative to President Obama and Chief of Staff Lew for meeting with us to discuss the president’s priorities and the Orthodox Jewish community’s values and interests,” Katz said in a statement after the meeting.

A White House official said that “the president discussed with the rabbis and lay leaders a variety of issues of mutual concern on issues related to both domestic and foreign policy. The president reiterated his unwavering support for Israel’s security and his commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

In discussing the meeting with his congregation last Shabbat, Goldin said he emphasized the responsibilities that come with political access.

“We are a voting bloc. It’s very important that we not take that for granted. Whether or not we vote plays a role in the continuing access that we get,” he said.

Ron Kampeas from JTA contributed to this story

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