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August 16, 2011 12:17 pm

White House Connects With Liberal Jewish Base on ‘Social Justice’ Issues

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Roundtable leaders in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

August 15, the Prime Minister of Israel addressed twenty seven America leaders – Republican members of Congress – expressing his concern about Iran, calling it “the largest danger standing before us today…Its goal is to destroy any chance of democratic governance, peace and freedom in the Middle East.”

Almost at the same hour, Rabbi Jack Moline spoke with the Algemeiner about a July 28 meeting between American Jewish leaders and White House officials. “Relationships between the United States and Israel, and Israel and the Obama administration are not as bad as some would have us think,” said the Rabbi.

170 Jewish leaders from across the geographic and socio-political spectrum gathered to discuss American social justice issues as part of the White House Office of Public Engagement “Community Leaders Briefings.”  The series of meetings, says the While House, is intended “to bring together leaders and activists from communities all across the country for an opportunity to discuss common challenges.  The July 28 meeting was unique – it was specifically called the “Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.”

Top White House advisors including Valerie Jarrett, (Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement), Jon Carson, (Office of Public Engagement), (Michael Strautmanis (Counselor for Strategic Engagement to Jarrett), Danielle Borrin (Vice President’s staff, handles Jewish affairs) Cecilia Munoz, (Intergovernmental Affairs), Tina Tchen (White House Council on Women and Girls), and Dr. Rebecca Blank, (Department of Commerce) met with 170 representatives of 21 organizations in a meeting generally characterized as positive, including a statement of the President’s continued support for Israel’s security and general availability to the issues concerning the American Jewish community.

Almost 5 % of the participants came from the National Council NCJW, which brings with it a century of work towards social change. Others represented “grassroots” leadership of the 20 other organizations composing the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable. From Hillel to denomination representatives, a wide range of the American Jewish community participated. Rabbi Jack Moline is the rabbi of the conservative Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia. He is on the national board of the Rabbinical Assembly, has served as President of the Washington Board of Rabbis and is on the board of the Gesher Day School. He calls Israel “a high priority item in both my professional and my personal life.” Moline spoke candidly with the Algemeiner.

“If you listen to those voices concerned with Israel’s security, including Israel’s defense minister and Ambassador Michael Oren, things have never been stronger or more dependable than now,” commented Moline. “There may be some disputes on questions about who is doing the right thing in terms of resolving issues between Israel and her neighbors, but in terms of the essential aspects of Israel and security, there is no distance between Obama and Netanyahu.”  He continued “The two leaders’ relationship is close and strong.”

The July 28 conference focused on the Jewish community and its domestic agenda. “It was,” said Moline, a “relief to be able to discuss those matters together, whether we are progressive or conservative….We are not a one issue community, our agenda is broad, and tied inextricably to the diverse fabric of the neighborhoods and cities in which we live.”

July 28 was the Friday before the debt ceiling deadline. The presence of Valerie Jarrett who “was very candid” and stayed for an extended discussion indicated the importance the administration attributed to the meeting. “There is no magic wand,” said Moline. “We all think an elected official can change things immediately. Change is incremental and painfully slow.”  Dr. Rebecca Blank, Undersecretary of Commerce, called the “economic mess” a result of “the perfect storm of tax cuts and unfunded ventures that accelerated the housing bubble.

Asked how he thought their Jewish backgrounds affected those working in the White House, the rabbi said it was “pretty clear that many who spoke shared a ‘shorthand’ with us – nothing overt.”  He called Jewish background and commitment to Jewish values a “major motivator” of those who go into public service, especially those serving a president. Rabbi Joshua Salter, Associate Rabbi, Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation (First Lady Michelle Obama’s cousin Capers Funnye is Senior Rabbi) quoted his daughter Ariel’s words “Our Jewish faith teaches us to be less selfish and more self-less.”

Asked who is now the main carrier of the “Jewish message” Moline designated Dennis Ross, who “has the President’s ear.” (Three major Jewish voices, David Axelrod, Rahm Emmanuel and Dan Shapiro, have recently left the White House staff. Shapiro now serves as American ambassador in Israel. “His set of concerns is very different” said Moline. Dannielle Borrin, a member of the Vice President’s staff, is an “unofficial liaison” to the Jewish community.

Rabbi Moline is a member of the Conservative Movement. Asked by the Algemeiner what he believed the role of this major Jewish denomination should be, Moline said his goal is to raise the movement’s profile in the public policy arena and bring policy concerns to congregational rabbis. For example, the organization recently signed on to the Amicus brief filed by the Anti Defamation League (ADL) demanding that an American born in Jerusalem have the right to list his/her birthplace as ‘Israel.’

“Many Jews who have had an influence on presidents have been raised in active Jewish homes involved with their local synagogues,” said this congregational rabbi. He stressed the need for a multi faceted Jewish voice and strong “Jewish consciousness. The Obama administration, he told the Algemeiner, has gone out of its way to reach out to AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents, and the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements. He noted the active White House connection with Rabbi Levi Shemtov who will celebrate the wedding of his daughter next week. “He picked the week when Congress is in recess. In Washington, Rabbi Shemtov is everywhere!”

Regarding his position vis a vis interfaith activities, Rabbi Moline said, while he had no trouble standing shoulder to shoulder with Christian Zionists about Israel and on behalf of the poor, or Protestants on issues of civil rights, there were many issues with each group with which he did not agree.

Jewish Congressional leaders, including Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Rep. Henry Waxman, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Sen. Mark Begich, and a representative of Senator Charles Schumer also spoke to the group. Rabbi Moline concluded, saying “the gatherings at the White House are extraordinarily important. This was the only group that came as a community – which says something about the importance of Jewish concerns to Obama administration.”

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