900 rabbis are, as I type this, on a conference call with Sen. Obama. A few people have been designated as question-askers. (I’m posting now a couple of moments after getting off the phone, but this post was written as the call went on, so it might read more like notes than a regular post, and is mostly, I think, in the present tense.)

We’re starting with comments from Rabbis Sam Gordon and Elliot Dorff of Rabbis for Obama. As R. Dorff puts it, his supporting Obama “is a case of both ahavat Mordechai and sinat Haman” (love of Mordechai and hate of Haman).

Sen. Obama is on now, has wished us a shana tova (Ashkenazi pronunciation), and namedropped the phrase tikkun olam. He’s talking about the economic crisis, the war in Iraq, Iran, climate change, Bin Laden is still on the loose, etc. There’s a lot to fix. “I do not think, as president, that I can repair all this on my own, but that perhaps together,” we can. He quotes Rabbi Tarfon (not by name), “You are not free to complete the work, but neither may you desist from it.” He talks about restoring America’s promise to care for the vulnerable, provide health care, care for children and aging, invest in alternate energy sources and create green jobs, to create an economy for all, not just for the rich. He wants to get back to “I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper” as a value in the country.

He talks about his deep ties with the Chicago Jewish community and partnerships with them, and emphasizes that he has been a “stalwart friend of Israel” and says that he thinks “Israel’s security is sacrosanct.” He talks about both supporting Israel’s security and being an active partner in peace, standing tough with Iran.

He talks about how the new year is a time not just for celebration but for reflection and hard work. “I think it’s time for us all to turn the page… and complete the work of Creation.” He talks about the shofar as a way to rouse us from our slumber and help us repent for our misdeeds, chart a better path, as a call to action.

With that, he finished his remarks, and four rabbis (one from each of the major denominations) were invited to ask him questions.

Rabbi Jeffery Wohlberg, president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, asked him to reflect on some of the conversations that he had in the Middle East.

Obama says that he spoke with Livni, Barak, Olmert, Peres, and Netanyahu, and that they of course all had different perspectives, but that a common theme in the conversations included identification of Iran as a huge threat, and all agreed that Iran should not get a nuclear weapon. Obama says that the US has made a mistake in not focusing on this, that Iran has benefited from the war in Iraq both by eliminating an enemy of Iran and by diverting our attention. He talks about Iran divestment as a way to exploit weakness in Iranian economy and to ratchet up the pressure. In terms of peace talks, he talks about the importance of not starting from scratch with a new Israeli PM and new American president. Too often, he says, the Americans wait until late in 2nd term to start talking about Israel, and Obama wants to send envoys to start working on this soon after election.

Rabbi Tzvi Weinreb, of the Orthodox Union (I think he’s executive VP) said that he’s concerned that Obama’s education proposals don’t help K-12 faith-based private schools do secular studies better, that they only help public schools.

Obama says that he opposes voucher programs, but supports faith-based funding for Head Start-like programs, summer learning, after school programs, that sort of thing. Under No Child Left Behind, he says, faith-based schools are eligible for funding.

Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, wants to know how people of all faiths and people of no faiths can both speak from where they are (in their respective belief systems) and also come together.

Obama says, “none of us should be obliged to leave our faith and beliefs and religious language behind in making claims for the greater good.” He cites Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln as two people whose religious language added power to their work. There is, he says, a moral component to questions of poverty, health care, even whether or not we should go to war. Religious organizations can do profound good, and he says that they should receive funding as long as they’re not proselytizing or exclusionary. At the same time, Obama is a big believer in the importance of the 1st Amendment, and does not want a theocracy that forces people to comply with beliefs not their own. This also, he says, helps religious institutions not feel obliged to censor their views to receive government funding. He’s always looking for ecumenical opportunities.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of Union of Reform Judaism asks, how can we address the economic needs of most without forgetting the needs of the poor in our midst?

Obama says: the stronger the economy, the easier it is to lift people out of poverty. His overarching economic policy involves freeing from dependence on foreign oil, investing in alternative energy that can create jobs and strengthen the US infrastructure, making college more affordable, improving education, investing in science and technology (something, he notes, that this administration has neglected) and changing the tax code to “value not just wealth, but work.” That will help, but there is no silver bullet that will help people in extreme poverty. There, he says, you can make a huge difference in early childhood education, health care for all Americans, making public schools more effective by improving teacher corps, paying teachers better, expanding after-school and summer programs, etc., and helping link people with jobs. Changing the tax code can help people to earn a living wage, and housing programs can help get a roof over people’s heads. He says that it’ll cost money, but that it’s a relatively modest sum when looking at the overall budget.

He concluded by wishing us a happy, sweet new year. And that was that.

What would you have asked?

(X-posted to Jewschool)

Share This