Three local rabbis were among 20 leaders of the Conservative movement who held an informal White House meeting May 29 with President Barack Obama.
Rabbis Andrea Merow of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, Eric Yanoff of Adath Israel in Merion Station and David Ackerman of Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley were among the group that included Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president and CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
The contingent had a scheduled meeting with White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, an observant Jew, to discuss a wide range of issues. The meeting was arranged by Rabbi Jack Moline, director of public policy for the Rabbinical Assembly.
The president stopped into the room for about 35 minutes. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, recited a prayer for encountering a world leader and Obama reportedly said, "Amen."
Not surprisingly, Obama discussed his support for Israel's security, including the Iron Dome anti-missile project, and his commitment to preventing Iran from achieving nuclear weapons, according to Merow.
Though they didn't divulge the specifics, the three rabbis each said that Obama's talk of preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons was reassuring. Yanoff said Obama's rhetoric was very similar to the tough tone he took in his March speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's policy conference in Washington, D.C.
Obama has worried some Israel supporters with his approach to Iran and his public warning of the potential consequences of an imminent Israeli strike against the country.
"I think it is pretty extraordinary that the White House reaches out to rabbinic leaders and clearly enjoys a warm, ongoing relationship with many leaders of the Jewish community," Ackerman said, adding that Obama "presented a sense of a real commitment to Israel's security."
TIn their meeting with Lew, moving the United States Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the release of Jonathan Pollard came up but they were not raised in the meeting with Obama. So far, Obama has rejected pleas to intervene in the case of Pollard, who in 1987 was sentenced to life in prison for spying for Israel.
Obama focused on some other issues as well, including immigration and the economy. The president also spoke at length about the role religious leaders can play in fostering change.
"He said that most social change in this country started with religious leaders," said Merow, who two years ago also was part of a meeting between Obama and rabbis of different streams.
Ackerman added: "From a president who is very careful about his language and his choice of words, he was kind of full-throated and passionate about the need for religious leaders to be in the public conversation."
Though the rabbis said that Obama was clearly trying to show how his administration has served the Jewish community — and how the policies it has pursued dovetail with Jewish values — the rabbis insisted it wasn't an openly partisan meeting and there weren't any explicit references to his re-election campaign.