WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Donald Trump has invited representatives from three major Orthodox umbrella groups to join a pre-Rosh Hashanah conference call, but pointedly left off the invitation list two liberal denominations that had said earlier they would not take part.
The call to take place Friday morning comes three weeks after three non-Orthodox movements — Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist — declined to help organize an annual rabbis call that Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, had instituted.
The Reform and Reconstructionists were not on the invitation list, spokespeople from both movements said. While Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the CEO of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, was invited to take part in Friday’s call, she declined.
In addition to the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America and the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, participants who confirmed to JTA that they would be joining the call include four general organizations: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Zionist Organization of America.
“The Trump Administration will be commemorating the upcoming High Holidays in several ways,” Natalie Strom, a White House spokeswoman, told JTA in an email Thursday. “Tomorrow, President Donald J. Trump will hold a conference call with Jewish leaders and staff to send well wishes for the upcoming holidays and discuss his Administration’s progress on issues of interest to the Jewish community.”
Reform movement leaders, who led the decision last month to call off the clergy call, stood by their decision and said they would not accept an invitation from Trump had it been proffered.
“Our position has not changed,” Graham Roth, a spokesman for the movement’s Religious Action Center, told JTA in an email. “Reform rabbis, along with Reconstructionist and Conservative rabbis, decided to forgo hosting the annual High Holiday call with the President this year. This was not a decision made lightly, but the President’s lack of moral leadership in the wake of Charlottesville made it necessary.”
Trump had equivocated after a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly on Aug. 12, when an alleged white supremacist killed a woman by ramming his car into a crowd of counterprotesters. The president earned bipartisan disapproval when he said “many sides” were responsible for the violence, and also said there were “very fine people” on both sides. More recently, he has more robustly condemned white supremacists.
“We hope that the President will use the call as an opportunity to condemn white supremacy,” Roth said.
The statement from the rabbinical umbrella groups charged Trump with giving “succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia.”
The Anti-Defamation League at first erroneously reported it was asked not to join. Later Thursday, an ADL official told JTA that an invitation had been directed not to CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, but to another ADL representative. ADL will be on the call, the official said.
Queries to the American Jewish Committee asking if its officials had been invited or planned on taking part went unanswered by press time.
Schonfeld explained why the Conservative movement will not participate.
“While I remain entirely open to the possibility of the president making real change, an insufficient period has passed since our August statement to evaluate whether he has made that change,” she told JTA in an emailed statement. “In the spirit of the season, I will pray for the health, strength and wisdom of the president.”
An invitation was extended to some individual rabbis from all the movements, and some could well take part. There was wiggle room in the original statement put out last month by the three non-Orthodox movements. “We cannot organize such a call this year,” it said, leaving room for individuals to take part.
Representatives of Orthodox movements said joining the call was common sense.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), said conversation was a critical component to any relationship in Washington.
“Openness to people who do not share your opinion may not always be easy, but it always remains necessary,” Shemtov said. “Conversation will always bring better results than the opposite.”
Shemtov said that he would have taken the invitation regardless, but he noted that Charles Schumer, D-N.Y, the Jewish Senate minority leader who in recent days has struck a deal with Trump on raising the debt ceiling and is close to another on protecting from deportation the children of illegal immigrants.
Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, said the call was part of the natural back-and-forth between the Jewish community and any president.
“He is the president of the United States and we must engage with him on issues of importance to the community,” Diament said, “and this call is part of that process.”