President Trump prepares to sign the Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House on May 4, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Carlos Barria

Trump to hold conference call despite boycott by many Jewish leaders

(RNS) — Despite a boycott by leaders of major Jewish rabbinical associations, President Trump issued invitations to individual rabbis and Jewish laypeople for a High Holy Days conference call on Friday (Sept. 15).

The conference call tradition was begun by President Obama as a way of marking Judaism's most sacred season which begins this year on Wednesday evening with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, followed 10 days later by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

But after the violence at last month's protest in Charlottesville, Va., where Trump appeared to sanction white supremacists by saying there were “very fine people” on both sides of the rally, leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements said they would boycott the call.


READ: Rabbis to forgo annual High Holy Days call with president over Charlottesville remarks


“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,” they said in a statement.

Graham Roth, a spokesman for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said the group’s position has not changed.

"This was not a decision made lightly, but the president’s lack of moral leadership in the wake of Charlottesville made it necessary," Roth said.

In the past, it has been the rabbinical groups that sent invitations to its members to join the call. The Trump White House has instead sent invitations directly to individual rabbis and lay leaders, said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center.

Diament said he knows of at least a dozen rabbis who said they would participate, though he declined to name names. Most are Orthodox rabbis whose support for the president remains strong.

“It’s a general attitude that this is the president of the United States and it’s meaningful that he’s having this call ahead of Rosh Hashanah, and out of respect for the office and because of a responsibility to engage with the president on issues of importance to the community, it’s the best way to engage directly,” Diament said. “This phone call is part of that process."

The president’s relationship with the Jewish community has been fraught from the start.

In his first few days in office, Trump’s White House issued a statement for Holocaust Remembrance Day that made no mention of the millions of Jews who were killed, instead focusing on “all” who suffered. A month later he shouted down a reporter who asked him about a rise in anti-Semitism during a press briefing.

Then, after protesters chanted anti-Semitic and racist slogans, including “Jews will not replace us,” at a Charlottesville rally in August, Trump equivocated and did not immediately condemn the white nationalists.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who oversaw Trump's daughter’s conversion to Judaism, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that he was not among those invited, "but if I were, I would dial in, out of respect for the president of the U.S."  Lookstein had denounced the president’s response to Charlottesville.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, who now leads Lookstein's Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York, said he does not grant interviews on this subject.

In the 2016 election, 71 percent of Jews voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton and 24 percent voted for Republican Trump, according to exit polls. A new poll by the American Jewish Committee shows that support for Trump among Orthodox Jews on Election Day does not seem to have waned.


READ: Most US Jews oppose Trump but the Orthodox stick with him