Conservative Group Stays Mum on Alito

By Ori Nir

Published January 27, 2006, issue of January 27, 2006.
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WASHINGTON — Following a wave of internal criticism over its endorsement of John Roberts for Supreme Court Chief Justice, the union of Conservative synagogues has adopted a new “charter” to guide its public policy decisions, including a policy of avoiding positions on future nominations. The union is sitting out the fight over President Bush’s latest nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Samuel Alito.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, representing about 800 congregations from Judaism’s centrist wing, drew criticism last year after the co-chairmen of its social action and public policy committee endorsed Roberts as “qualified” and praised John Bolton, the White House’s nominee to serve as United States ambassador to the United Nations. In both cases, despite the generally liberal bent of its rabbis and members, the United Synagogue joined several Orthodox and mostly politically conservative Jewish groups in voicing support for Bush’s picks.

The United Synagogue endorsements sparked a wave of criticism from Conservative congregants and pulpit rabbis, who complained that the decisions had been made by a handful of people and without any clearly defined process.

Last month, in response to the controversy, the United Synagogue adopted a new charter declaring that the organization “will not routinely state positions on nominations of individuals to non-elective office.”

The new charter also states that positions on such issues will be adopted and made public only if the organization’s executive committee approves them by a two-thirds majority and if written notice is submitted to the board of directors.

The debates over endorsements and the new charter come as the institutions of Conservative Judaism struggle to establish a profile on public policy issues. Although the iconic image of contemporary Jewish religious activism features a Conservative rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., it is Reform and Orthodox organizations that have devoted the most time and resources in recent decades to political advocacy. United Synagogue leaders say that any recent missteps on their part stemmed from a rush to raise the organization’s public policy profile.

“In our zeal to get a committee going and get a process going, we never designed a charter, and therefore the ground rules were not clear,” said the United Synagogue’s executive vice president, Rabbi Jerome Epstein. The latest pullback came, he said, because “we wanted to clarify them.”

Epstein confirmed that members of his movement had complained about the lack of a defined process behind the expressions of support for Roberts and Bolton issued last year by the co-chairmen of the social action committee, Rabbi Jack Moline of Virginia and attorney William Bresnick of Maryland.

Last June, under direct prodding from the White House, Moline and Bresnick sent letters respectively to Bush and to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist praising Bolton.

Both Conservative officials stated in their letters that they were speaking as private individuals, but both identified themselves as co-chairs of the United Synagogue committee. Some Conservative rabbis and congregants protested that the letters were inappropriate and should have been cleared first with the United Synagogue’s board.

A second flap occurred in August, when the two men wrote to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, informing him that Roberts was “qualified to serve” on the Supreme Court under criteria recently adopted by the United Synagogue for evaluating judicial nominees.

Marc Waldman, then the United Synagogue’s public policy director, cosigned the Roberts letter.

The organization adopted criteria for evaluating judicial nominees — derived largely from centuries-old rabbinic teachings — shortly after Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her retirement and before Bush nominated Roberts. The idea, movement insiders said, was to create a niche for the United Synagogue in the already crowded field of Jewish activism in Washington. Conservative leaders envisioned a role for themselves advising policymakers on traditional Jewish teachings that relate to contemporary issues.

In a repeat of the Bolton debate, the letter to Specter triggered complaints within the movement. Many argued that on such a sensitive issue, the movement’s national leadership should have sought broad consultation rather than limiting the discussion to members of the policy committee. Responding to critics at the time, Epstein told the Forward that a broader consultation process, such as bringing the issue before the United Synagogue’s board of directors, would have been impractical.

Moline said he is still a member of the social action committee but no longer serves as chairman because of other duties. Rabbi Morris Allen of Mendota Heights, Minn., has replaced him as co-chairman.

Waldman has since taken a job at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, organizing congregational support for the pro-Israel lobby. Lewis Grafman, a Philadelphia lawyer who directs the United Synagogue’s Mid-Atlantic region, has replaced him.

While the United Synagogue apparently stayed out of the Alito debate, the Conservative movement’s rabbinical union, the Rabbinical Assembly, sent a letter to Specter last week, expressing concern “about the confirmation of a justice whose legal philosophy would reverse” women’s reproductive rights. The letter stopped short of stating explicitly that this is the R.A.’s view of Alito.

“During the coming weeks your attention, and that of the nation, will shift to the confirmation hearings for Judge Alito,” wrote the assembly’s president, Rabbi Perry Rank, and the chair of its social action committee, Rabbi Leonard Gordon, in their letter to Specter. “In that context, we want to remind you of the position of the Conservative movement on the issues of reproductive choice and the process by which our nation selects its judicial candidates.”

The R.A. and the United Synagogue are separate organizations that historically have seldom coordinated public policy positions and activities. Neither organization maintains a permanent presence in Washington beyond individual member-congregations. Last year, though, the two organizations lobbied together on Capitol Hill for the first time. Now they are discussing ways to “speak with one voice,” Gordon told the Forward.

The low Washington profile of Conservative Judaism contrasts sharply with the other main synagogue movements. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism operates a large lobbying and public affairs office in Washington with a 20-person full-time staff and an annual budget of $2.3 million, according to figures from 2004 to 2005. The Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs has five full-time positions in Washington and two more in New York. The Orthodox Union did not supply Washington budget figures.

Epstein said that the United Synagogue is seeking ways to establish a Washington office. “It’s a matter of finding the resources to do it,” he said.

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