Obama and the Rabbis

Friday, September 19th, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign seems to think that the road to keeping the Democrats’ big majority of Jewish votes in November may run through the bimah.

First there was emergence of “Rabbis for Obama,” a groundbreaking group that has collected more than 400 signatures – mostly from the Reform and Conservative realms, as we reported last week, but with a smattering of Orthodox rabbis.

On Wednesday the campaign arranged a conference call with – get this – 900 rabbis across the country.  That, too, could be a political first.

Officially, the candidate’s goal was to extend New Year’s greetings to the community, unofficially to provide more reassurance that there won’t mean any radical shift in U.S. policy toward Israel if Sen. Obama takes the oath of office next January.

“I think that it’s… important to recognize that throughout my career in the State Legislature and now in the U.S. Senate I have been a stalwart friend of Israel,” he told the rabbis. “On every single issue related to Israel’s security, I have been unwavering, and will continue to be unwavering.”

Sen. Obama also touched on the delicate subject of public funding for parochial schools – which many liberal rabbis staunchly oppose but which Orthodox activists generally support.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, asked whether Sen. Obama supports new initiatives to support students in all schools – parochial and public.

Sen. Obama signaled that he is open to funding for faith-based groups providing early learning and after-school programs, but that he opposes school vouchers.

Earlier this year Sen. Obama pleased Orthodox activist – and angered some Democratic liberals – when he said he would continue some of President Bush’s faith based programming.

Nathan Diament, public policy director for the OU, said “We appreciate Senator Obama’s acknowledgment of the important role parochial and other nonpublic schools play in American society and are encouraged by Senator Obama’s agreement that they would be eligible for funding pre-school, early childhood and supplementary programs, something that is long established as constitutional and a cost effective way of providing services to those in need, as evidenced by the dozens of Federal and state programs that use public tax money in private and faith based institutions.”

Look for more talk on the issue next week as the campaign launches a major new faith based push, aimed mostly at evangelical and mainline Protestant groups, but which may also have a Jewish component.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.