The LORD will give strength unto His people; the LORD will bless his people with peace. (Psalms 29:11)
With the Jewish New Year just around the corner, US President Barack Obama is expected to use his now-annual Rosh Hashana conference call with over 1,000 American rabbis from across the religious and political spectrum to promote the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks being brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry, The Times of Israel reported. The hope is that these rabbis will then promote the peace talks among their congregations as a positive step. Other expected topics include domestic issues such as immigration and economic recovery, sources close to the Obama administration told the news outlet. This year, Rosh Hashana begins the evening of September 4.
As of Sunday, the date and time of the call had not been scheduled, but rabbis who have participated in the past say this is typical, and that the call is often scheduled at the last minute.
The annual conference call with Obama began in 2009, when he took up an invitation to converse with the group of rabbis about health care reform ahead of the New Year. The following year, his focus was also on peace in the Middle East. In 2011, he discussed both domestic and foreign policy, dealing with his jobs bill and his efforts to block Palestinian unilateral declarations of statehood in the UN. Last year, during the US elections, Iran was the topic.
The call is unique in that it reaches clergy instead of community lay leaders. According to Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, of Congregation B’nai Tzedek, a Conservative synagogue in the Washington suburb of Potomac, Maryland, this is reflective of “where the American-Jewish community is today and its importance to the political mosaic of the country.” This is in contrast to a meeting Kerry held in early August with some 19 representatives of American Jewish organizations to discuss the same peace efforts.
Israel’s outgoing ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, held his own rabbinic conference call last week, reaching out to dozens of US rabbis. He shared his views on a range of issues, including including peace talks, Iranian nuclear ambitions, the developing situations in Syria and Egypt and religious pluralism in Israel. In particular, he mentioned the progress being made by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky towards a compromise on access to the Western Wall Plaza. Sharansky is currently trying to find a solution to religious tensions surrounding egalitarian prayer at the Wall.
For many congregations, Rosh Hashana is the time of greatest levels of attendance, so most rabbis take advantage of the season to push a strong message. Politicians and lobby groups alike are starting to take advantage of this trend and reaching out to rabbis to promote their own messages. Last year, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney also made a call to community rabbis, and left-wing Jewish lobby group J-Street has produced two pamphlets, one of talking points for rabbinical sermons, “to build a connection between the tones of these important days of spiritual observance with the renewed, U.S.-led diplomatic effort to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” and a brochure “ to build support for Middle East peace negotiations.” Pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC holds its own conference call.
According to Weinblatt, rabbis have a crucial role to play in shaping the congregations views. “Rabbis have a very important role to help contextualize and frame the issues and give the background materials that congregants might not otherwise hear.”