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The Philadelphia Jewish Voice
October 2005

Judging Roberts: United Synagogue not so United

No doubt there are many Jews who are both religiously Conservative and politically conservative, but do political conservatives dominate the Conservative religious movement?

It would appear that way after leaders of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism voiced support for the appointment of John Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court. In so doing, I can attest that they antagonized three Conservative Jews - Sylvia G. Lenhoff of Crescent City, Calif., Larisa Thomason of New Market, Ala., and this writer from Philadelphia. To take an educated guess, we do not comprise a minority of three.

"Please, fellow Conservative Jews," Lenhoff writes in a letter published in the Sept. 9 edition of The Forward, "act to keep this strange little cadre of self-appointed political experts from getting away with this trick."

After President Bush nominated Roberts for the bench, three United Synagogue officials signed a letter proclaiming that Roberts "is qualified to serve" and on Aug. 22 sent the letter to U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and lives across town from me. At this writing, Roberts is undergoing hearings for the position of Chief Justice of the court.

Not only does this letter of support likely conflict with the views of many Conservative Jews, but it was done in an underhanded manner that is a slap in the face to the 1.5 million-membership of United Synagogue.

In her letter to the Forward, a Jewish weekly, Lenhoff says she wrote the following to Rabbi Jerome Epstein, USCJ executive vice president: "Who decided to turn the United Synagogue into a political organization on the model of the Christian Coalition? What allows you to think you represent politically 1.5 million Conservative Jews? Who called on you to take on such a political role?...What about your tax-exempt status as a religious, not a political, organization?"

The United Synagogue letter raises the question as to whether it should even stake out a position. If it must, then it seems that support for Roberts contradicts the views of the majority of Jews represented by the organization. An estimated 76 percent of Jews voted against Bush in 2004, so it stands to reason that the vast majority of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews are politically moderate or liberal. The majority probably oppose Roberts' appointment or are neutral.

More importantly, this stance makes someone like myself feel very uncomfortable. How do we disassociate ourselves from the USCJ letter if a critic confronts us about it? It is easy to stave off criticism of misguided Israeli policies because we favor sensible policies there and, for that matter, many of us cannot vote in Israel. When the Republican Jewish Coalition backs tax cuts for the rich, we can stress that we oppose that and other repressive Bush administration ideologies. If an Orthodox rabbi assails gay rights, we can simply point out that we are not Orthodox and do not share said attitude.

In this vein, we have every right to admonish someone who would lump us with these ideologies solely because we are Jewish.

We lack this kind of maneuvering room when the leadership of our own specific religious stream endorses a judicial nominee like Roberts. We can only respond that we were caught by surprise and are furious about this crude and stupid action.

Their letter to Specter may not even be legitimate. News accounts state that support for Roberts was approved in a divided vote of the group's Public Policy and Social Action Committee co-chaired by William Bresnick of Potomac, Md., and Rabbi Jack Moline, spiritual leader of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Va.

An unidentified Conservative leader told The New York Jewish Week, "No discussion in the committee was without disagreement; there was no vote that was unanimous."

The committee sent the letter to Specter without bothering to consult the board of United Synagogue, not to mention congregants like Lenhoff, Thomason and myself. The letter was signed by Bresnick, Moline and Mark Waldman, director of public policy for United Synagogue, The Forward reported.

Thomason writes in The Forward that she is an officer for a small USCJ synagogue in Alabama, saying, "No one on our synagogue board would ever consider taking a position on any public issue without consulting the entire board and probably the membership, as well. We respect each other far too much to summarily remove anyone from the decision-making process on important issues. It's distressing to find out that some Conservative movement leaders don't show each other - and the general membership - the same consideration."

That these three signers would slap us in the face this way should be no surprise to other United Synagogue leaders. Last June, some Conservative rabbis assailed the group after The Forward reported that the two public policy co-chairmen sent a message to Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist expressing support for John Bolton's appointment as ambassador to the United Nations. USCJ officials subsequently contended that the co-chairmen sent the letters as individuals and not on behalf of the organization.

Probably the best course of action is for many of the 700 congregations represented by USCJ to send their own letters to the leadership. The grassroots membership must send them a strong message.

- Bruce S. Ticker