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October 3, 2013 1:14 pm

Rabbi Jack Moline Takes Helm for Jewish Democrats (INTERVIEW)

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Rabbi Jack Moline, new director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. Photo: Courtesy Rabbi Jack Moline.

JNS.orgRabbi Jack Moline was sitting with his friend, Rahm Emanuel, then a White House adviser, as the two ate lunch during their regular Jewish study session when the door swung open and President Bill Clinton walked into Emanuel’s White House office.

Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago, introduced the rabbi—who stood up, shook Clinton’s hand, and told the president that he was happy to meet him, forgetting he “had a mouthful of sandwich.”

“I mumbled and sort of spit all over him,” Moline tells

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It was the first face-to-face interaction the rabbi had with a president of the United States, but not the last—although presumably the last with food in his mouth. As a religious leader, Moline has been to numerous official White House meetings, mostly as director of public policy for the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, a position he held from 2009 until May, and has met both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. On Monday, the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) announced that Moline would take over in January as executive director. He replaces David A. Harris, who left last February. NJDC promotes Jewish support for candidates at the state and local levels and aims to educate Democratic elected officials and candidates on what it considers Jewish domestic and foreign priorities.

“It’s a great opportunity and a chance to leave my mark in a different way on the American Jewish community. My path into Jewish life had as much to do with activism as it did with religious commitment,” Moline, 61, says.

Moline has “not only a passion for politics, but a knack for understanding the political spectrum,” says his friend and colleague Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, leader of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va.

“This new chapter in his life will be one that is not only fulfilling for him, but for the American Jewish community,” she says.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the Rabbinical Assembly’s executive vice president, says Moline was “an outstanding spokesperson for our positions” as public policy director. She calls Moline “particularly talented in helping people of diverse viewpoints hear each other constructively in meetings and public forums.”

Moline takes over the reins of an organization that has seen its fundraising abilities decline.

“We need to put the organization on both a solid financial and philosophical footing. We need to emphasize the goodness of government and the importance of Jewish participation in the electoral process,” he says.

Moline has long been a political activist, canvassing for candidates, working voter drives, and supporting progressive issues, including an immigration overhaul. Although his support of specific candidates took place behind the scenes for most of his career, Moline came out in full force for Obama when he became a national rabbinic co-chair for the Obama campaign in 2008. Mixing politics and the pulpit was a role he carefully navigated as a congregational rabbi for 35 years, 27 of them at Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Va. “Personally you always see what Jack’s druthers are politically,” says Joel Goldhammer, the congregation’s president. In his official capacity, though, Moline “never came in and said you have to vote for Obama,” according to Goldhammer.

“He was always much more about the issue,” Goldhammer says.

“[Moline] walked the line by telling people, ‘You know where I come from, you know what my beliefs are,'” adds Bob Meyers, a congregant and past president of Agugas Achim. “Everything he did was against the background of Jewish beliefs and customs.”

Moline, who has been listed as one of Newsweek‘s “50 Most Influential Rabbis in America,” grew up outside in Wilmette, Ill., outside of Chicago (he remains a long-suffering Cubs fan). At age 15, he decided one profession he didn’t want was rabbi. That was the year he witnessed the breakup of his family congregation, Beth Hillel—the same one Rahm Emanuel’s family had belonged to. The rabbi’s contract hadn’t been renewed, splitting the congregation. Moline’s family remained loyal to the synagogue, while Emanuel’s went with the breakaway group. Moline’s father was active in the synagogue, and some meetings were held in the family’s home.

“The meeting I got to hear taking place was so personal and so unpleasant, I swore to myself I would never become a rabbi,” Moline recalls.

At Northwestern University, he became more religiously observant. After graduating, Moline began working for United Synagogue Youth in the Washington, DC, area, where he met a lot of teens eager to learn more about Judaism. He recommended such authors as Mordecai Kaplan and Martin Buber, whose works he personally hadn’t read.

“I was telling that story to a young rabbi, Jerome Epstein,” Moline says, referring to the man who later became the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s executive director. Epstein suggested that Moline go to rabbinical school. While he still didn’t want to become a rabbi, “it sounded like a good idea to get the education,” he recalls.

Moline and his wife, Ann, set out for California, where he attended the University of Judaism. To earn some money while he was out there, he worked as a tour guide at Universal Studios and competed on the short-lived NBC game show, “Knockout,” with Arte Johnson of “Laugh-In” fame. He won about $1,000 in cash and prizes on “Knockout.”

His second year of studies led him to a rabbinic internship at Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge, Calif. “I really loved it—every aspect of it—and I never turned back,” he says.

So began Moline’s rabbinic career. After two years at U.J. (now American Jewish University), he transferred to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and became a student rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel in Danbury, Conn., which he then served as a full-time rabbi. He also worked as a part-time chaplain at the Federal Correction Institution in Danbury before joining Agudas Achim in 1987.

Moline has always looked beyond his congregation, thrusting himself in local and national activities, whether it be support for Gesher Jewish Day School, which was housed for several years in his synagogue, or a stint as board chair for the Interfaith Alliance. Along the way, he has written two books—one a humor book, “Growing Up Jewish,” the other a source book, “Jewish Leadership and Heroism”—and in an example of the humor well known to his congregants, penned a spoof of Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s on First?” shtick, calling it “Abbott and Costello Learn Hebrew.”

He also runs the Sixty Fund—set up by his wife and three children in honor of his 60th birthday—which honors individuals and groups based on “courage, compassion, generosity and wisdom.” The most recent honorees were Willie and Carol Fowler who, when their daughter canceled her wedding, chose not to cancel the reception, but instead to invite 200 homeless individuals to the dinner.

At NJDC, Moline hopes to turn around the criticism from Jewish Republicans in recent years that Democrats are not sufficiently supporting Israel. The Jewish state should not be used as a pawn for political disagreements, the rabbi says.

“Israel should be a value for all of us,” he says.

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