Rabbis for Obama

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

James Besser in Washington

With Election Day now looking perilously close, the Barack Obama presidential campaign is ramping up its Jewish outreach in critical states like Florida.

And this week a group of rabbis – now approaching 400 – pitched in to make the Illinois senator’s case.

In its initial press release Rabbis for Obama announced that it represents “every corner of the American Jewish community,” but in truth the group, which was started by two Reform rabbis from the Chicago area is weighted heavily to the Reform and Conservative side of the Jewish spectrum.

Insiders say, though, that about twelve Orthodox rabbis have signed on.

“It began with me and Rabbi Sam Gordon,” said Rabbi Steven Bob, spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Chaim in Lombard, Ill.  “We independently approached the campaign with this idea in June, and they were encouraging.”

He said the group “started out with Reform rabbis, because that’s who we knew,” but that it has spread almost virally in recent days, with more than 40 signing on in the 24 hours after the group was announced.

“More importantly, we’re getting a lot of rabbis, some of them retired, who are calling and asking if they can go out and speak,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of spontaneous efforts by rabbis to get involved.”

He said he believes this is the first official rabbinic group created to support a candidate.

The rabbis’ effort comes as the Obama campaign prepares a wave of ads targeting the Jewish community nationwide, but with a special focus on the handful of key states where Jews could make a difference – starting with Florida.

Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn said the Obama campaign “wants to stay ahead of the curve on Jewish issues,” and predicted the McCain camp will trot out its own list of rabbis – probably drawing more heavily from the Orthodox side.

Can a group like Rabbis for Obama sway voters?

“Among affiliated Jews, these kinds of efforts do get peoples’ attention,” Kahn said. “But non-affiliated Jews don’t put much stock in what rabbis say, anyway. And knowledgeable people will dissect the list of signers to ascertain who’s on it – and who isn’t.”

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.