Not Another ‘Rabbi for Obama’
David Wolpe insists that delivering a benediction at the Democratic Convention is not a political endorsement
Wolpe’s Sinai Temple, home to a large population of Iranian expatriates who experienced anti-Semitism firsthand, is also a hotbed of pro-Israel activism. “We have for the past five years sent the largest delegation of any institution—not just synagogue—to the AIPAC conference,” Wolpe noted with pride. He himself delivered an impassioned address at this past year’s conference, and his congregation counts among its members founders of AIPAC and the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, the influential pro-Israel think tank.
While he backs a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has sharply criticized partisans on the left and right who oppose it, “within those broad parameters,” he said, “I feel like it’s my job to encourage the Zionism of the people who support Israel in all of their variegated views.”
At the same time, Wolpe is not averse to criticizing the Jewish state, particularly when it comes to the Israeli chief rabbinate’s disenfranchisement of non-Orthodox Jews. “It does stifle the creativity of Judaism,” he argued. “It’s one of the reasons why there’s such a large secular community [in Israel], because there are no alternatives as there are in the States. I wish that there were more separation of synagogue and state, and—as I hope will happen in time—that the state of Israel would grant Jews the same religious freedom that is granted them in the United States.”
It’s an approach that has won him plaudits from many in the commentariat. “David Wolpe is eloquent, bold, and self-confident in ways that make him stand apart from much of the American rabbinate, which is not overstocked with brave men and women, but with careerists and cringers,” said Jeffrey Goldberg, who often quotes Wolpe on his popular Atlantic blog, where he refers to him as the site’s “chief rabbi.” “He is the complete package as a rabbi—I’ve seen him with his congregation, and he functions beautifully as pastor and as spiritual guide, but he’s also unafraid to throw himself into the public arena, and his gifts as a writer and as a speaker make him practically sui generis today.”
When asked about his popularity and success, Wolpe himself is more self-effacing. “In the Kaddish D’rabbanan, we say of scholars ‘al talmideihon v’al talmidei talmideihon’—‘on their students and on their students’ students.’ ” To Wolpe, this means that “your greatest success as a rabbi is if long after you’re gone, your teaching still influences people. And you don’t know that. You don’t whether it will happen or not. So, I hope that I have scored my greatest successes as a rabbi. But if so, it’s hidden from me. But posterity will know—and I’ll just pray that it’s true.”
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