Some 41 New Jersey rabbis — about a dozen from the Greater MetroWest area — are part of a cohort of 613 “Rabbis for Obama” announced last week.
The group, set up by the Obama for America campaign, is already double the size of a similar group established during the 2008 campaign.
The local rabbis, most of them Reform or Conservative, said they signed on in their individual capacities.
Ira Forman, the Obama campaign’s director of Jewish outreach, said in a news release issued last week that the list “represents a broad group of respected Jewish leaders from all parts of the country” who mirror “the diversity of American Jewry.”
No equivalent group of supporters for GOP candidate Gov. Mitt Romney has yet been announced. Predictably, the Obama group has drawn harsh partisan reaction on the Internet and elsewhere, primarily for including some rabbis regarded by critics as “anti-Israel.” (See sidebar.)
Rabbi Charles Kroloff, rabbi emeritus of the Reform congregation Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, was a national vice chair of the rabbis’ group last time and is serving in that capacity again.
“I believe so strongly that President Obama represents the values and commitments I hold dear,” said Kroloff.
Those values, he said, include the belief that “those who have been blessed many times over” should assist the less fortunate. Kroloff said he also shares Obama’s positions on Israel, the environment, women’s issues, and how to move the economy forward.
Kroloff said he has received one negative response, and “dozens of positive.” The rabbis’ group, he said, “encourages American Jews to think about the president’s reelection in terms of the fundamental issues facing the electorate, and in terms of Jewish values.”
Rabbi Donald Rossoff, leader of the Reform congregation Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, said he signed on now and in 2008 because he believes that Obama’s “values and vision for our country” most closely reflect his own.
As to what he feels the group can achieve, he said, “In a time when so many of the most passionate Jewish voices seem to be coming from American-Jewish conservatives, I believe that a strong liberal Jewish voice is needed to speak on both domestic issues as well as policy regarding Israel and the pursuit of security, justice, and peace.”
Although Obama received between 74 and 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, according to exit polls, Republicans are confident that they can chip into that percentage by focusing on reported tension between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Obama’s 2011 assertion that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” The Republican Jewish Coalition has been running TV ads featuring three disaffected Jewish 2008 Obama voters who say they are committed to Romney.
A Gallup poll done in late July showed the president with 68 percent of the Jewish vote, compared to 25 percent for Romney.
Democrats, meanwhile, say the Obama administration has sent Israel the largest-ever amount of military aid in U.S. history, blocked the Palestinians’ statehood bid at the United Nations, and put in place strong sanctions against Iran. They also point to data showing the majority of Jews share the Democrats’ agenda on social and domestic issues like abortion, immigration, health care, and the environment.
Rabbi Burt Visotzky is cochairing the effort with Rabbis Sam Gordon and Steven Bob, founding cochairs of Rabbis for Obama in 2008.
“I believe President Obama has shown great leadership for America on the issues that speak to my Jewish values: health care, education, equality of opportunity for all, care for the needy among us,” said Visotzky, a professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. “Also, President Obama has the best track record of any U.S. president in support of Israel financially, militarily, at the United Nations in specific, and diplomatically in general.”
Asked what kind of response he has received, he said, “By and large people have responded enthusiastically. The Jewish community has always been aligned with the values and positions of the Democratic Party.” As for the predominance of Reform and Conservative rabbis in the group, he pointed out that there are a number of Orthodox rabbis listed, adding, “And we are always happy to welcome more.”
Dr. Ben Chouake, president of the nonpartisan pro-Israel lobbying organization NORPAC, said he has no objection to the rabbis’ participation in the electoral process. In fact, he said, “it’s very important that they be involved and lead the way in encouraging their followers to get involved.”
But he questioned whether religious leaders can make an endorsement in their personal capacity. “Generally speaking,” he said, “the rule of thumb if you represent a congregation is that you need to have the overwhelming support of your congregation before you make a partisan choice.”
As for himself, he certainly won’t be publicly endorsing a presidential candidate. “If I did, I would get so much flak!” he said.