Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg didn’t expect his small but heartfelt initiative to cause such a ruckus. Yet two weeks before a close election, the founder of a group calling itself “Rabbis for Romney” is bound to draw attention.
The group, an informal collection of rabbis without a detailed platform or petition, has already drawn fire from the Huffington Post and avid support from right-wing Jewish commentators online. While some expressed support for the initiative, Rosenberg has fallen prey to the Internet’s rancor, with one commentator calling for him to be burned in a gas chamber.
For Rosenberg, the divisiveness alone is proof of the need for balance. His group was set up in response to Rabbis for Obama, a group comprising Jewish pro-Obama activists that organized a petition signed by hundreds of rabbis seeking to counter criticism of the president’s policies in some parts of the Jewish community.
“We’re a grassroots operation,” Rosenberg told The Times of Israel this week, his euphemism for the lack of any support or institutional ties to the Republican Party, right-wing institutions or Jewish groups.
In fact, Rosenberg only decided to launch the group “because I don’t believe rabbis should be for Romney, or Obama, or anybody.” It was only when Democrats decided to launch a public campaign equating the rabbinate with support for Obama that Rosenberg felt he needed to balance the message.
“In the case of Obama, I have nothing personally against him; I think he’s a fine man. I think he’s trying hard. But he hasn’t, in my opinion, done enough, particularly for the State of Israel, to make me feel comfortable that Israel will not be under attack by Iran and will be nuked, in which case another Holocaust will happen. If you ask me, ‘Can another Holocaust happen?’ The answer is yes.”
When Rosenberg compares the Iranian threat to the Holocaust, it would be a mistake to hear glibness. Rosenberg was born in a displaced persons camp in post-war Europe, the child of Polish-born Holocaust survivors. He has written several books about the Holocaust, including educational works for teenagers.
While he campaigns publicly to unseat Obama from the presidency, he refuses to bring his politics to the pulpit.
“I’ve heard from a colleague, a rabbi who spoke about Obama on Rosh Hashanah — a lot of rabbis spoke about Obama from the pulpit on Rosh Hashana, which is against IRS rules, but they did it – I’ve heard this guy was railroaded out of town, because there were a few Republicans in the audience who took major offense.”
And, he believes, congregants are right to reject politics from their pulpits. “The pulpit is a place for Torah, not a place for politics,” he affirms.
“My personal philosophy is that unless a candidate is anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist, I do not speak on behalf or against anyone.” Obama, he explains, is none of those. “He’s not an anti-Semite. I don’t buy into that. He’s not anti-Israel.”
Isn’t there a contradiction between calling for a politics-free pulpit and identifying himself as a “Rabbi for Romney?”
“This country right now is completely divided in this election,” Rosenberg says. “There’s hatred on both sides. There’s disgust on both sides.”
For his part, “I have no incentive to do this. I’m not being offered a job. All I’m getting is hate mail. But you know what? You have to speak out. I’m speaking out. At best, [Republicans] are going to get 25-30 percent of the Jewish vote — at best. So any rabbi speaking out about Romney, considering that most Jews are Democrats, is looking for nothing but trouble. I know I’m making a difference by the very fact that I’m being attacked like there’s no tomorrow.” He points to online comments on articles about him as proof.
So why is he doing it?
It’s important to offset the perception that Jews are “unthinking” Democrats, he explains. Jews must be courted by the parties –- a fact that Rabbis for Obama seems to be trying to obfuscate, he believes.
In showing political variety in the Jewish community, he believes he is making a dent in the partisanship and divisiveness on display in the election.