Conservatives Go to D.C.

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 27, 2009, issue of June 05, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Fashionably late, the Conservative movement is joining the growing world of Jewish advocacy in the nation’s capital.

Decades after the Reform and Orthodox movements set up shop in Washington, the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement has decided to launch a small operation to bring the voice of Conservative Judaism to decision-makers. The initiative will include a general public policy office and a separate program for Israel advocacy.

The initiative announced by the R.A.’s incoming executive vice president, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, is part of a broader attempt by the Conservative movement to reach out beyond its immediate community, both by taking the group’s message to Washington and by collaborating with other groups on joint projects.

On domestic issues, the Conservative movement’s advocacy program is off to a safe start, drawing on the success of the movement’s recent Hekhsher Tzedek project, which certifies the ethical standards of kosher food operations. But the Israel advocacy operation kicks off at a time when differences between Israel and the United States on the peace process make the office’s work on this issue extremely difficult.

“In general terms, our inclination will be to support the government of Israel,” said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Potomac, Md., who will head the group’s Israel advocacy arm. “My view is that Israel is always stronger when we speak in one voice and support the elected Israeli government.”

But the movement is on record in support of the 2007 Annapolis, Md., process, including its call for establishing an independent Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution — a view that now could be seen as contradicting the approach of the current government in Israel.

Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky of Beth El Congregation in Phoenix, who is among the more hawkish voices among Conservative rabbis, said he believed that there was no room for the movement to advocate a two-state solution at present time, because there is still no Palestinian acceptance of the peace process’s requirements.

“I would guess this is not the place to begin the movement’s advocacy efforts,” said Rabbi Susan Grossman from Beth Shalom congregation in Columbia, Md. She said that while the movement always supported Israel strongly, wading into the waters of delicate peace process issues does not seem to be a top priority.

Instead, efforts will be concentrated on the Iranian issue, where a broader consensus exists. “Engagement [with Iran] is an opportunity to move forward, but it should be coupled with sanctions,” Weinblatt said. He added that the Conservative movement’s voice “has been sorely missed” on issues relating to Israel and that it is “time to make up for that.”

The task of making up for lost time will be in the hands of Weinblatt and Rabbi Jack Moline of Alexandria, Va., who was chosen to head the R.A.’s Washington office. Both will do the job while continuing to serve as pulpit rabbis in their communities. Other Jewish denominations have much larger Washington operations: The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, headed by Rabbi David Saperstein, has 22 full-time employees on staff. The Orthodox Union’s office has a team of five. Agudath Israel and Chabad also have small advocacy offices in Washington.

Although the Conservatives are beginning small, Moline comes to the job with the advantage of being a well-known figure in Washington’s political life. He is considered to have close ties with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who was Moline’s congregant during the Clinton administration.

Moline said he intends to focus his advocacy work on issues relating to social justice, building on the model of the Hekhsher Tzedek, which was launched following the Agriprocessors scandal.

“What we have learned from the enormous success and popularity of Hekhsher Tzedek is that the community is quite literally hungry to lead Jewish lives where the ritual is bound up in the ethical underpinning,” Schonfeld said.

Contact Nathan Guttman at

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Kosovo's centuries-old Jewish community is down to a few dozen. In a nation where the population is 90% Muslim, they are proud their past — and wonder why Israel won't recognize their state.
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.