Washington — A leading Reform rabbi will deliver a prime-time invocation at the Democratic National Convention on the day of Barack Obama’s acceptance speech.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center in Washington, will give his invocation in front of an expected crowd of 70,000 at Invesco Field and millions of television viewers.
The choice of Saperstein is part of a broader attempt by organizers of Democratic convention to highlight participation of faith groups at the event and to open the political forum to religious groups. A record number of seven rabbis will take part in events surrounding the convention, representing the entire spectrum of Jewish religious life.
“This shows how critical the party and the campaign believe the Jewish community is in the upcoming elections and in the future,” said Matt Dorf, who coordinates Jewish outreach efforts for the Democratic National Committee.
Saperstein’s invocation will open the last day of the Democratic convention, when Obama will give his main speech and officially kick off the presidential campaign.
After Obama’s speech, Pastor Joel Hunter, an evangelical from Northland, Fla., will deliver the closing benediction. Invocations on other days will come from a Greek Orthodox archbishop, a Catholic nun and a Methodist couple.
Organizers of the convention had decided last month to move the final night’s events from Denver’s convention center to the Invesco Field football stadium in order to reach an even larger crowd.
Saperstein has headed the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for 34 years. He has led the formation of numerous interfaith coalitions on both domestic and foreign policy issues and has recently played a leading role in the effort to raise interest in the Darfur genocide.
The decision to choose Saperstein for the key invocation at the convention was made by party officials both at the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago and by convention organizers on the ground in Denver.
“Saperstein is the right person to talk about the intersection of faith and politics,” said a Democratic official, who added that the choice will also serve as recognition of the centrality of the Jewish community in the campaign.
Rabbi Saperstein told the Forward that his participation in the event should not be viewed as an expression of support for either of the political parties.
“In both the Democratic and Republican conventions there are thousands of people whose sole focus is on making America better,” he said. “It is perfectly appropriate for them to ask for God’s blessing and God’s guidance. I don’t see it as a partisan issue.”
A statement issued August 18 by the Democratic National Convention said that the purpose of religious invocations at the beginning of every session was “to raise up in a non-partisan manner the moral challenges facing the country and to pray that the country’s leaders have the wisdom and courage to resolve them.”
Six other Jewish religious leaders will take part in convention events, among them Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, who will share the stage at an interfaith event with Christian and Muslim religious leaders. The Orthodox community is considered to be one of the few Republican strongholds among Jewish voters. A Gallup poll published early July found that observant Jews are more likely to vote for John McCain than for Obama in the November elections.
Weinreb said in a statement that he views the decision to invite him to the convention as “the Democratic Party’s ‘endorsement’ of the critical role religious faiths play in American life.”
Democrats are emphasizing in this year’s convention the role of faith groups and have even set up a first-ever faith caucus, which will be holding meetings throughout the week.
The Republicans have yet to announce their plans for faith groups’ participation in their convention, which will take place a week after the Democratic one.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.