The rabbis have joined the group in their capacities as individuals, not as representatives of any particular institutions or organizations. The IRS clearly prohibits clergy from advocating on behalf of political candidates during worship services or other organization-sponsored functions, or on behalf of their congregations.
That so many rabbis have joined in support of the president is no surprise: a July 28 Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Jewish registered voters support the president, while only 25 percent support Republican candidate Mitt Romney. In 2008, Obama received close to 78 percent of the Jewish vote compared with 22 percent for Sen. John McCain.
No rabbis from Pittsburgh are currently listed as members of Rabbis for Obama. A representative for the Obama campaign, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was not concerned about that and expects more rabbis to join.
“There’s lots of rabbis who don’t come out publicly for a candidate — who don’t sign up — who are for a candidate, so this isn’t particular concern.”
He added that the number of rabbis who have joined Rabbis for Obama demonstrates “the depth and breath of support for the president among this segment of community leadership.
“People will look at this list and say ‘wow, there’s broad support in the community for the president among rabbis; there has not been anything like this before.”
But the group, which was just launched last week, has already met with controversy. It has been criticized by the Republican Jewish Coalition as being comprised largely of far left wing, anti-Israel zealots, most notably Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb of the Jewish Renewal movement, who once spoke at an interfaith event in New York featuring Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Gottlieb is also an advisory board member of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a group that promotes boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning Israel.
In fact, eight of JVP’s 35 rabbinical council members are also Rabbis for Obama. Included on that list is David Mivasair, a Vancouver-based rabbi who suggested in a blog post in 2010 that the actions of the United States and Israel might have elicited the 9/11 terror attacks, and who has downplayed the launching of Palestinian rockets into Sderot.
The Obama campaign has denied the RJC’s characterization and issued the following statement:
“The president's strong support of Israel and toughest-ever actions against Iran has led rabbis from across the political spectrum to express their support for the president and have committed to seeing him re-elected. The president obviously does not endorse or embrace their every affiliation, action or utterance.”
About 225 members of Rabbis for Obama are also members of J Street’s rabbinic cabinet. J Street bills itself as a pro-Israel, pro-peace organization, though many conservatives have attacked their positions as anti-Israel.
Of course, most rabbis in the group have no such controversial resumes, and Rabbis for Obama may well represent the political leanings of the majority of Jews — but not all Jews.
In response to the formation of Rabbis for Obama, Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg, spiritual leader of the Conservative Congregation Beth-El in Edison, N.J., is attempting to launch “Rabbis for Romney.” His outreach to like-minded rabbis had garnered 32 positive responses as of Monday this week, although he says he needs at least 300 potential members before he will be able to form a group with the support of the Republican Party.
Rosenberg has even sought financial backing from Sheldon Adelson, the multibillionaire Las Vegas casino owner, who reportedly pledged $500,000 to the campaign of New Jersey Republican congressional candidate Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. As of Monday, Rosenberg had not heard back from Adelson.
“I’m not in favor of ‘Rabbis for’ anyone,” Rosenberg told the Chronicle. “I think it’s a horrible mistake.”
Still, he is trying to fill a void “because there is a Rabbis for Obama group, and not a Rabbis for Romney group.
“When 600 rabbis come out for Obama, it sends a message to Romney to not bother with the Jews,” Rosenberg said. “Obama needs the Jewish vote, so he’s being positive to Israel right now.
“If Romney wins, he doesn’t owe anything to the Jewish community [if Jews do not support him],” he said. “My concern is what’s going to happen to Israel. Obama is not doing anything with Iran. Ambassador [Dennis] Ross has said this is the worst time for Israel ever. We’re in deep trouble, and the average Jew doesn’t get it. People ask me if a Holocaust can happen again. Of course it can happen again. Iran can send its nukes to Tel Aviv. People don’t get it.”
(Ross has also said the level of strategic cooperation between Israel and the United States is unprecedented under the Obama administration. See Gary Rosenblatt’s column.)
Rosenberg expects that any coalition he can form in support of Romney will be comprised of mostly Orthodox rabbis, and some Conservative rabbis. But, he said, because most Conservative Jews are Democrats, their rabbis “are scared to death to lend their name to this cause.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)