Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, Congregation B’nai Tzedek’s spiritual leader, sat in his study on a warm early summer day. He had recently completed his duties as chair of the Jewish Federations of North America Rabbinic Cabinet.
It is perhaps difficult to understand what and why someone would spend a great deal of time being part of a Cabinet. But those who know Rabbi Weinblatt, who know his commitment to his kehillah (community), to Israel and Klal Yisrael — the Jewish people — understand this was a perfect fit.
Weinblatt’s words painted a picture of the work he and the Cabinet achieved over the recent years. Perhaps his most telling tale happened in Kiev, when the Cabinet dispersed in vans across the city so that the rabbis could meet with and learn with the city’s Jewish community.
“We talked and learned with a lot of Jewish people there,” he said. “Our mission underscored the roles of the Joint and the Jewish Agency. We provided support and sustenance to Jews. We saw how elderly Jews there received medical care, food stamp help and visits from social workers.”
Weinblatt said that the group wanted to let the Kiev Jews know that this was a group of American rabbis who wanted to help connect them to Judaism. There was a strong Jewish identity piece to all of this, said Weinblatt. Many of those who they visited told of how they found out by accident that they were Jewish.
While there, Weinblatt had an opportunity to meet with officials from Hungary and the Ukraine. He said he advocated on behalf of the Jewish communities in both places, and he said he was warmly received by the diplomats.
There also was a memorial service at Babi Yar, where more than 100,000 Jews of Kiev and surrounding areas were rounded up and slaughtered in a ravine.
On a more upbeat note, Weinblatt led the contingent of more than 30 rabbis from different denominations to Israel where the group saw how organizations such as JAFI (Jewish Agency for Israel) and the JDC (Joint Distribution Committee) were helping immigrants from the former Soviet Union integrate successfully into Israeli society. For many of the seniors, Rabbi Weinblatt said, this was the first time as Jews they were treated with integrity and would be able to live their lives securely.
The group also met with Natan Sharansky, a leading Soviet Jewish refusenik and now the chairman of the JAFI executive. Weinblatt would go on to say that this particular JFNA Rabbinic Cabinet mission far exceeded his expectations and further validated for the rabbis the importance of the federation system.
“They learned how it complements what they do to ensure the survival of the Jewish community and peoplehood,” said Weinblatt.
Several of the group participants left the mission to pray at the Western Wall with a group of women worshippers. There, Israeli police detained 10 women praying at the Wall. Two of the women detained were from the JFNA mission.
Commenting on Jewish pluralism in Israel, while encouraging a fair solution for those women who wish to pray at the Wall, JFNA issued a statement saying, “such an outcome must uphold Israel’s guarantee to grant full freedom of worship for all in Jerusalem, including the rights of all Jews to pray in their own tradition at our holy sites.”
In its recently held June Rabbinic Cabinet annual meeting, rabbis met with Israeli Embassy officials; paid lobbying visits to several foreign embassies as well as congressional delegations on the Hill; and met with high-level “think tank” officials.
For Weinblatt, leading the Cabinet was something he took seriously, dedicating much time and energy to see it succeed.
“I wanted to put the Rabbinic Cabinet on the map,” he said. “I wanted the JFNA to be looking at us as a spiritual resource. I wanted to be positioned to be seen as important in the Jewish world and the Federated community.”
Weinblatt said that one of his bigger goals was to bring women rabbis and Orthodox rabbis on the mission together. He said that the mission was “one of the few places where rabbis from all the different movements could set aside their individual differences and realize what we have in common.”
“Our priorities as rabbis are what we have in common,” he said. “Our message to the people we met is that we are advocates for our fellow Jews.”
But there were also the meetings with U.N. ambassadors on behalf of Israel to counter those nations who would seek its delegitimization.
Lastly, Weinblatt didn’t just step away from big-time duties when his term at JFNA expired. In June, he co-chaired the Rabbinic Assembly’s convention in Israel. He is the director of Israel policy and advocacy for the R.A.
Now, it’s time to prepare for Rosh Hashanah.
The rabbi from Potomac is never not busy.