Rabbi Lookstein says he’d join a Trump High Holidays call
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan, told Jewish Insider that he would join a pre- High Holidays conference call between President Trump and Synagogue Rabbis despite his recent criticism of Trump’s response to Charlottesville.
Several U.S. rabbinical and religious groups representing the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements announced on Wednesday that they will not continue the tradition of participating in a pre-High Holidays conference call with Trump, accusing the President of giving “succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia.”
“We have concluded that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year,” leaders of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, The Rabbinical Assembly, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism said in a joint statement.
The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), representing Orthodox rabbis and a co-host of past calls, did not respond to an inquiry from Jewish Insider whether they would participate in a call with the President. Asked if he’d join a call with the President if arranged by other groups, Lookstein, currently a member of RCA’s Committee To Review Conversion Process who also oversaw Ivanka Trump’s conversion to Judaism, said: “Yes! Absolutely! He is the president of my country.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
The tradition started during the 2008 presidential campaign. It became an annual practice, with the participation of several hundred rabbis and Jewish leaders, during Barack Obama’s presidency. While the call was billed as a non-partisan briefing, President Obama often used the call to pitch and seek support for his administration’s domestic and foreign policy decisions, such as Obamacare, Middle East peace, and the Iran nuclear deal.
In George W. Bush’s administration, similar conference calls took place but usually with a broad range of Jewish leaders and senior administration officials, according to an official who helped organize the briefings. President Bush himself often met with leaders in-person on the day of the White House Hanukkah reception, explained Noam Neusner, a former White House Jewish Liaison under President Bush. In 2008, top leaders of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America met with Bush at the White House in advance of Rosh Hashanah.
Jeff Berkowitz, Founder and CEO of Delve LLC, an opposition research firm for political campaigns and previously a White House Jewish liaison (2005-2006), questioned the motive of the statement. “The statement, and having a paid political consultant (West End Strategy) promoting it, is a strange and unfortunate politicization of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar that does nothing to further the Jewish community’s interests,” Berkowitz said.
Tevi Troy, a former Bush administration official, emphasized that these types of call are mainly used to offer administration talking points for high holiday sermons. “Political sermonizing is a mistake for many reasons,” Troy wrote in a 2011 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. “First, the Holy Days are supposed to bring forth a universal message about the unity of the Jewish people, the importance of our shared religious tradition, and the need to rededicate ourselves to observance of the Torah in the year to come.”