A traditional greeting call before the High Holidays has become a point of contention for the Jewish community and a window into the Trump administration’s relations with the American Jewish establishment.
The call, scheduled for Friday morning, was described by the White House in invitations sent out Wednesday to rabbis and Jewish leaders as a chance for the president to “send well wishes for the upcoming holidays and discuss his administration’s progress on issues of interest to the Jewish community.” The email described the upcoming conversation as an “exciting call.”
Last month, leaders of the three main liberal denominations—Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist—announced a preemptive boycott of the annual call, citing Trump’s response to the white supremacist march in Charlottesville. The White House, less than a week before Rosh Hashanah, decided to forge ahead anyway and organize the event as planned.
With one major difference.
The group of rabbis and communal leaders on the line is expected to lean heavily toward the Orthodox side of the Jewish denominational spectrum. This new makeup of the call represents both the Trump administration’s reliance on warmer relations with Orthodox while being largely cut off from the liberal denominations, as well as the administration’s effort to bypass Jewish organizations and handpick invitees to the call.
Members of Orthodox groups made clear their participation has nothing to do with approval or disapproval of Trump’s policies and conduct. “The Jewish religious tradition counsels respect for governmental leaders, regardless of any policies or positions a leader may have instituted or taken,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel, who promised there will be at least one representative of the group on the call. “Jewish communal representatives can take issue with any governmental policy or position but should not use opportunities like this to register protest anger or chagrin.”
Nathan Diament of the Orthodox Union, who plans to be on line, said that aside from the requirement to have respect for the office of the president, “we also have to engage with him on issues important for the community.” Some of the Jewish groups, especially Orthodox, share the administration’s hawkish policies towards Israel and the Iran nuclear deal, and also support Trump’s stated desire to change rules allowing federal assistance to synagogues hit by recent hurricanes.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov of Chabad, who will also participate in the call, noted that “if the president want to have a conference call with Jewish leaders, its appropriate to participate.”
The format of the call was not announced. Under Obama, the conversation was attended by thousands of rabbis and included a presentation by the president relating to the holidays and to current events of concern to the Jewish community, followed by a brief set of questions from representatives of each denomination.
While the Orthodox community is fully on board with Trump’s call, other elements of the Jewish community are strongly opposed to participation. This split reflects the broader political divide within the Jewish community, as seen in this week’s American Jewish Committee public opinion survey. The poll found that 71% of Orthodox Jews approve of Trump’s performance as president, compared with with 25% of Conservatives, 11% of Reform, 8% of Reconstructionists and 14% of those identifying as “just Jewish.” Orthodox Jews make up an estimated 10% of the American Jewish community.
Trump, in issuing invitations to the High Holiday conference call, not only relied heavily on Orthodox participants, but also chose to bypass the denominations that had called to boycott the call. The Reform and Conservative movements did not get invited, nor were they asked to send representatives to join the call.
“Our position has not changed. Reform rabbis, along with Reconstructionist and Conservative rabbis, decided to forgo hosting the annual High Holiday call with the President this year,” said Graham Roth, communications director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
This does not mean, however, that members of these denominations will not take part. The White House has reached out to several individual Reform and Conservative rabbis and asked them to join, in a move that could weaken the perception of a united liberal Jewish front against Trump.
“It’s a personal decision for each rabbi and should not be determined by national organizations” said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek, a Conservative synagogue in Potomac, Md. “I’m glad to hear the White House is interested in reaching out to the Jewish community.”
The White House has also expanded the reach of the call beyond rabbinical groups, including representatives of the Zionist Organization of America, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, CEO of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said that while she will not participate in the call because of Trump’s actions and comments, she hopes he will change his ways. “In the spirit of the season, I will pray for the health strength and wisdom of the president. I fervently hope that upon sincere reflection, he leads our country on a path of respect and love for all.”
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.