Rabbi Jack Moline, a well-known pulpit rabbi in Alexandria, Va., has decided to leave the pulpit after more than 30 years to try his hand at politics.
No, he’s not planning to run for office but will assume the position of executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Coalition in January.
“After 35 years in the same profession, you can either try to figure out how to wind down or what to do next,” Rabbi Moline, 61, told The Jewish Week.
He said his contract with his synagogue for the past 26 years, Agudas Achim Congregation, was up for renewal this year and had he signed it, he would have been committed to remaining until he was 67.
“For the last four years I was director of public policy for the [Conservative movement’s] Rabbinical Assembly, a volunteer position I initiated and found to be satisfying,” Rabbi Moline said. “I was obviously constrained by the fact that I had a full-time job … but it was one of the things I thought I might like to do if the opportunity presented itself.”
And then the opening at the NJDC came along. David A. Harris, who had been the executive director, left after Obama’s re-election and the post has been filled by interims.
Rabbi Moline, who is already co-chair of Rabbis for Obama, said the NJDC job was too good to refuse.
“I wasn’t looking for a job in the political world, but once the possibility presented itself, I was so excited by it. … Everything was aligned correctly to take this chance. And it is a chance.”
He said his goal is to “put the organization on a firm financial and philosophical footing. Part of the way to do that is to build on the past. We have a large cadre of donors who may be feeling a little neglected [due to the delay in naming a new executive director], and I promise not to have them feel that way.”
Asked what he hopes to bring to the position, Rabbi Moline replied: “We as a Jewish community can bring historical and philosophical values that will benefit not only our own community but the American public as well.”
Although most American Jews (about seven in 10) identify as Democrats, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that 57 percent of Orthodox Jews are or lean Republican and only 36 percent are or lean Democratic. Rabbi Moline pointed out that the Orthodox constitute a small percentage of American Jews — about 10 percent — and that a “community that votes as a bloc in response to the urging of its leader may skew those results.”
But he said he has a three-fold strategy to deal with that situation.
“The first is to rise above sloganeering and really ground our principles in Jewish values,” he said. “To that end, I began my very first board meeting at NJDC with a Talmudic text that underscores the progressive agenda.
“The second is to attempt to elevate the level of discourse on matters of concern to our community. I won’t engage in Orthodox-bashing — and I won’t tolerate the denigration of any segment of our community in return.
“The third is to acknowledge that people can have honest disagreements on issues; I have no need to flip the Orthodox vote if by doing so I have to compromise on what I believe are the best policies, positions and candidates for Americans and American Jews.”
He added: “It’s worth acknowledging that some values that are becoming accepted in American society, and rightly so, are problematic for those who adhere to a fixed understanding of certain biblical texts. Even if an increasing segment of such Jews reject the inclusiveness and pluralism of our society, they will find themselves marginalized from the mainstream. My task includes not therefore dismissing them as irrelevant, but in finding a way to work together on values we share, including support for the State of Israel and protection of religious freedoms.”
The announcement of Rabbi Moline’s new position was made Sept. 30, the same day the U.S. government shut down because of Congress’ inability to pass a budget. The Republican-controlled House wanted to defund the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature health care program, in return for passage of the budget. Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate refused to go along and the government shut down.
“It seems to me to be unthinkable that a small group of people would hold the well-being of the country hostage to a principle that they may hold very sincerely but on which there was a referendum and they lost,” Rabbi Moline. “The act was validated by a majority of this country in the last election. I am concerned that the leadership in the House has put party ahead of policy and I hope I never do that.”
The rabbi said he hopes to set a new tone on the political scene when he assumes his new post.
“I intend to be polite and civil — and the conversation on my end will be on policy and not personality,” he explained. “This culture of denigration that is pervading political discourse is the antithesis of what we ought to stand for as a Jewish community. I hope to bring some old civility back to the political realm.”
Rabbi Moline dismissed the notion that the government shutdown would benefit the Democrats because Americans would blame the Republicans.
“If the only way we can win elections is by the misfortune of the Republican Party — that is not a help to the county. What I hope will be impressed on everybody is the need for reasonable conversation, compromise on matters of concern, and an acceptance that in a democracy, once the vote is taken, the decision is made.”
Rabbi Moline’s decision to accept the position was welcomed by Marc Stanley, chair of the NJDC’s board of directors, who said in a statement that the rabbi “brings a wide and exciting range of abilities and experience to NJDC. His work as national co-chair of Rabbis for Obama, coordinator of public policy for the Conservative movement, coupled with his interfaith expertise and teaching and facilitating skills, make him a terrific leader for NJDC moving ahead.”
Rabbi Moline is also an adjunct professor at both the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, from which he was ordained, and the Virginia Theological Seminary. In addition, he serves on the board of the Washington, D.C.-based Interfaith Alliance.