Rabbi Jack Moline, who served as spiritual leader of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Va., for more than two decades, was recently named executive director of the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance, a progressive, ecumenical organization that “celebrates religious freedom by championing individual rights.” His appointment follows his short-lived stint as director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
In recent years Rabbi Moline has made Newsweek magazine’s list of the 50 most influential rabbis in the country. The Jewish Week interviewed the rabbi by email; this is an edited transcript.
Q: The focus of the Interfaith Alliance is the separation of church — or in your case, synagogue — and state. As a member of the clergy, what do you consider the proper place of religion in political life?
A: Interfaith Alliance tends to use the phrase “protecting the boundaries between religion and government.” Churches are not the only institutions of religion, and the word “separation” does not always express the reality of what we are trying to achieve.
Faith leaders have helped to change Americans’ perceptions of civil rights, war and peace, economic justice and other critical issues. But faith-based activism should bring ideas to the public square, not practices or, especially, dogma.
What will your first priorities be as the new leader of the Alliance?
I was at the White House last week as President Obama delivered his State of the Union Address, and I listened as he articulated so many of the challenges that are central to our work at Interfaith Alliance, among them discrimination against religious minorities including Muslims and Jews, and securing equality for the LGBT community. It’s a good place to start.
Many Jews are wary of dealing with Evangelical Christians — because of what is seen as a hidden conversion/end-days agenda. How do you answer Jews’ questions about this?
Just Evangelicals? Not Muslims or Hindus or atheists? I have been interacting with people of all faiths since I was a kid attending Hebrew school in a welcoming Congregational church. A person of firm conviction has no reason to be wary of honest interactions with other people.
With the rise in international terrorism, “radical Islam” is coming under increasing fire in this country. What role do “moderate” Muslims play in the work of the Alliance?
Members of the mainstream American Muslim community are every bit as interested in our national security as I am. We need to stop assigning the radical views of the terrorist fringe as representative of all Muslims, and we need to pay attention to Muslims in our society who share our devotion to the Constitution.
You come to the Interfaith Alliance from less than a year at the NJDC, during which you came under fire for criticizing the American Jewish Committee and AIPAC for “strong-arm” tactics in pressuring Democrats in Congress to oppose President Obama’s Iran policies. What did you learn from your tenure at the NJDC?
I learned that you need to have a tough skin to work in Washington, and you can’t be afraid to take a bit of criticism from time to time.
One maven in D.C. called you “one of the funniest rabbis around?” How does this help you in your high-pressure work?
Just “one of” the funniest rabbis?
In seeking consensus, tension is natural and often gets in the way of progress. That’s where my sense of humor helps most often. I once attended an interfaith conference on preventing AIDS in Africa led by Rick Warren. I sat silently through most of it while Pastor Warren explained to a very uncomfortable group a proposal to encourage male circumcision and to ask religious leaders to undergo the procedure first. Finally, I raised my hand for the first time and said, “On behalf of the Jewish community, we’re in.” It was all I said, but it probably moved the conversation forward better than any other contribution.