President Barack Obama spoke to 1000 rabbis in a conference call on Friday afternoon Aug. 30, 2013 from the White House. The President phoned to give his Rosh Hashanah, New Year greeting to the Rabbis and in general the American Jewish community. Rosh Hashanah begins Wednesday Sept. 4, 2013 at sundown and lasts two days. The call is an annual event the President uses to discuss important points of his administration's agenda that apply to the American Jewish population and he relates them to "Jewish ethics." This year that meant the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the crisis in Syria, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The President wished the rabbis, their congregations and the American Jewish community a happy, healthy and sweet new year from both the president and First Lady Michelle Obama. President Obama weaved the themes and meaning of the holiday into his conversation, telling the rabbis that the "Jewish High Holidays provide an opportunity for Jews to reflect on the past year and recommit themselves to core values."
The President discussed a number of issues in the call from domestic to foreign policy to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The President's yearly call is an attempt to get the Rabbis to support his policies and then convince their congregants about the merits of the agenda in their Rosh Hashanah and High Holiday sermons, when U.S. Congregations see the largest numbers of Jews in attendance.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of the Conservative Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, a suburb in the Washington, D.C. area commented on the importance of the President's call saying; "The White House call is a reflection of where the American-Jewish community is today and its importance to the political mosaic of the country." Weinblatt also believes the rabbis can relay the President's message especially this time of year; "Rabbis have a very important role to help contextualize and frame the issues and give the background materials that congregants might not otherwise hear."
When speaking of the March on Washington, the President brought up the contributions and sacrifices of American Jews in the civil rights movement, and Jewish participation in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedoms.
When it came to domestic policy, the President mostly spoke of implementing his health care law, the Affordable Care Act; individuals are supposed to start the enrollment process this October. He also discussed his plans for gun control laws. Other issues that were supposedly discussed included Obama's economic plans and agenda for the middle class, and immigration reform.
The main foreign policy issues the President was most concerned with was the current crisis in Syria, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that are currently underway.
Obama found his discussion on Syria became difficult when asked by a Conservative rabbi about having a "red line" with Syria regarding President Bashar Assad using chemical weapons on the country's citizens, which the President had implied was the point that Syrian government actions would have to be punished. At this point Obama was still mulling a decision as to a response to an Aug. 21, 2013 Syrian chemical attack on their citizens. The President had been leaning towards an executive decision to attack Syria with military air strikes, however on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013; the President announced the he ultimately decided to support an attack, but only with a Congressional vote of approval.
The Rabbis however, were concerned about Iran and its nuclear weapons program, and the message of not striking Syria would send to Iran about the United Stated having "red lines" and not responding strongly when countries do not abide by them. This threatens the security of their citizens and the security of other surrounding countries and worldwide, as well as U.S. national security.
President Obama also tried to drum-up support for the U.S. sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The President hoped the Rabbis would help him gain support for the talks among the Jewish community. American Jews are still skeptical about the talks, and still do not believe this rounds of negotiations will be any different than any other attempts for a peace deal.
The administration tried in August to speak with American communal and organizational leaders to gain support for the peace talks with not much success. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Special Envoy Martin Indyk and members from the administration's national security team met on Aug. 8 with 19 Jewish community and organizational leaders at the White House, where Kerry said that without a peace deal culminating from these rounds of talks, Israel could face diplomatic repercussions including international isolation and boycotts.
The President spoke with rabbis from the four major Jewish denominations; Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist, and the major rabbinical associations which includes; The Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox); the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative); the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform); and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. He hoped to reach out to all Jewish communities and denominations.
The President's annual tradition is a considerate gesture to America's Jewish community, the largest community in the Diaspora, even if he takes advantage of the opportunity to sell his political agenda to the Jewish and largely Democratic population.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.