Conservatives Go to D.C.

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 27, 2009, issue of June 05, 2009.
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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 guttman@forward.com.


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