Obama conference call with rabbis covers education, the meaning of the shofar, support for Israel

Barack Obama told a conference call of rabbis this morning that he supports government funding for after-school and mentoring programs in faith-based schools.

Speaking to 900 rabbis on a pre-Rosh Hashanah call, Obama said he opposes “vouchers” for private schools, but would continue to support funding, as is currently provided in the No Child Left Behind law, for after-school, tutoring, mentoring and summer programs at private and religious schools, according to a press release from the Orthodox Union and other rabbis who participated in the call.

Participants said Obama talked about a number of issues and took four questions from leaders of the four major denominations during the more than 40 minutes he spent on the call. The economy, education, energy, Israel and Iran were among the topics he discussed, reiterating the “unacceptability” of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.

With the call coming less than two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, the Democratic nominee wished the group “Shanah Tovah.” He also discussed how the shofar raises people from “slumber” to “set out on a better path” and how he hoped his campaign could do the same, according to rabbis on the call.

Rabbi Sam Gordon, who introduced Obama and serves as co-chair of “Rabbis for Obama,” said he believed that a presidential candidate speaking to hundreds of rabbis was “unprecedented” during a political campaign, and that Obama showed an impressive “depth of knowledge” — at one point referring to the largest modern Orthodox high school in Chicago by name, the Ida Crown Academy, when discussing faith-based schools.

The one complaint about the call was the speech of the other rabbi introducing Obam by Elliot Dorff, vice chair of the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and a professor at the American Jewish University (AJU). One rabbi who did not wish to be identified said Dorff’s speech was “way too partisan” and the Orthodox Union’s blog said Dorff essentially compared John McCain to Haman.

The Obama campaign has released portions of his remarks on the call:

“I know that for rabbis this is the busiest time of the year as you prepare for the High Holy Days. So I am grateful for a few minutes of your time. I extend my New Years greetings to you and to your congregations and communities. I want to wish everybody a Shana Tovah and I hope that you will convey my wishes to all of those you pray and celebrate with this Rosh Hashanah.

The Jewish New Year is unlike the new years of any other cultures. In part because it’s not simply a time for revelry; it’s a time for what might be called determined rejoicing. A time to put your affairs with other people in order so you can honestly turn to God. A time to recommit to the serious work of tikkun olamof mending the world.”

Senator Obama noted the significance of the Shofar in our lives for Rosh Hashanah and beyond, stating:

“And I know that the Shofar is going to be blown in your synagogues over Rosh Hashanah and there are many interpretations of its significance. One that I have heard that resonates with me is rousing us from our slumber so that we recognize our responsibilities and repent for our misdeeds and set out on a better path. The people in every community across this land join our campaign and I like to think that they are sounding that Shofar and to rouse this nation out of its slumber and to compel us to confront our challenges and ensure a better path. It’s a call to action. So as this New Year dawns, I am optimistic about our ability to overcome the challenges we face and the opportunity that we can bring the change we need not only to our nation but also to the world.”

Barack Obama also stated the need for leadership in both our troubled economy and foreign policy. Speaking of his recent trip to Israel and his unwavering commitment to the US-Israel relationship and Israel’s security, he noted: “I think that it’s also 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. On every single issue related to Israel’s security, I have been unwavering, and will continue to be unwavering. My belief is that Israel’s security is sacrosanct and we have to ensure that as the soul democracy in the Middle East, one of our greatest allies in the world, one that shares a special relationship with us and shares our values, we have to make sure that they have the support whether its financial or military to sustain their security and the hostile environment. And its also important that we are an effective partner with them in pursuing the possibilities of peace in the future, and that requires not only active engagement and negotiations that may take place with Palestinians but it also requires that we stand tough and with great clarity when it comes to Iran and the unacceptability of them possessing nuclear weapons. During my recent visit to Israel, I had the occasion to meet with all of the major political players. That was my second visit there and I think that they all came away with assurance of my commitment with respect to Israel”

State of the Union Aftermath

President Bush signaled the start of a new battle over faith-based health and social service programs in a State of the Union address that included a firm defense of his war in Iraq, a call to make his controversial tax cuts permanent and not a single mention of the Arab-Israeli conflict or the stalled "road map" for bringing it to an end.

But Bush could face the same problems in selling his new faith-based plans to Congress that led to the gutting of a major initiative last year.

In a speech long on broad principals, short on specifics — especially specifics that would result in new spending — Bush asked Congress to write into law orders he issued opening government contracts to religious service providers.

The president resorted to those orders when Congress removed most of the "charitable choice" provisions from major faith-based legislation, leaving just a collection of tax breaks intended to make it easier for charities to raise money.

Bush said that he has "opened billions of dollars in grant money to competition that includes faith-based charities," and asked lawmakers to "codify this into law, so people of faith can know that the law will never discriminate against them again."

That call was praised by the Orthodox Union (OU), which has supported the administration’s push for faith-based programs.

Nathan Diament, the OU’s Washington director, said that faith-based efforts "must be supported, wherever appropriate and possible, by partnerships with the government. And no agency should be excluded from such productive partnerships merely because its members coalesce around a set of religiously inspired principles."

But Jewish church-state groups expressed doubts that Congress will be any more receptive this time around.

"It will be a hard sell," said Michael Lieberman, counsel for the Washington office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

He said, provisions of the faith-based executive orders that allow grantees to discriminate on the basis of religion have generated resistance in Congress. And "some of the executive orders set in place a system by which a group can involve participants in worship, in proselytizing, in religious instruction."

The ADL will continue to oppose such proposals, Lieberman said. So will other Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Bush also offered conditional support for a "defense of marriage" constitutional amendment — a top priority for Christian conservative groups. But several of those groups, including the Family Research Council, complained that Bush did not go far enough.

Despite early rumors that he would use the address to announce new Middle East initiatives, the president only referred to the Middle East conflict indirectly, citing Jerusalem in his list of places affected by the terror threat.

But Bush defended his call for democracy in the region, calling it a "realistic goal."

Jewish peace process supporters were unhappy with the lack of new Mideast initiatives. "Combined with a series of other things, this speech signals the administration’s withdrawal from the peace process playing field," said Lewis Roth, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now.