NEW YORK — What do rabbis and congressmen have in common? To Robert Barr, a rabbi running for Ohio’s 1st congressional seat, the question is not the start of a joke. “I’m running for Congress for the same reason I became a rabbi,” he explained to The Jerusalem Post in a Friday interview: “To leave the world better than we found it.” Barr, 62, will become the first practicing rabbi to join the House of Representatives should he win his campaign for the Democratic nomination, followed by a potential race against Republican incumbent Steve Chabot. He faces competition, but the feasibility of his candidacy makes this race one to watch.
Barr was ordained by Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati and is based at Congregation Beth Adam in Loveland, Ohio, whose website describes him as “a leader in the evolution of modern, liberal Judaism.” The community describes itself as “humanistic,” rather than Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, and proclaims that “to be a Jew has never meant that one must accept some predefined concept of God.” Barr– who keeps his own views on God private– believes that one’s commitment to public service is transferrable from pulpit to roll call, as has been the case for countless priests and ministers that have served as US lawmakers. Electing a Jewish thought leader would add to the diversity of the legislature, Barr argued. “I think having a rabbi speaks to the idea that our nation and our ruling bodies are filled with people of all different types of background,” he said.
Judaism has taught him how to compromise, and how to listen to people– traits sorely lacking in contemporary Washington, Barr said. And religion has provided him with the language set to communicate with people the value of public goods, such as healthcare.
Barr lived in Jerusalem in 1976 and says he has led multiple trips to the holy land. “I have a very positive view of it, and of its importance,” he said. “Israel is important to me personally– its important as a global partner, and I want to see it sustained.” He condemned the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel as “inappropriate,” stating there are ways to disagree on the politics of Israel without attempting to delegitimize the state itself.
He supports a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that results in two states for two peoples living with “dignity and security,” he said. And he supports sustaining a nuclear deal brokered between Iran and international powers in 2015, without commenting on the merits of the agreement itself.
“Frankly, I think there is a deal– it’s important for America to stand by the deal, whether its the Iran deal or the Paris accord,” he said. “If every time a new president comes in and says there’s no deal, negotiations will become impossible.” If he wins his primary, Barr may catch a Democratic wave, as Republicans fear a beating in the 2018 midterm elections over President Donald Trump’s record-low approval ratings. Chabot– Barr’s GOP target– already once lost his seat, when Barack Obama swelled Democrats to victory down ballot in 2008.
Barr called on Trump to “speak clearly” as a moral leader, faced with growing divides nationwide over ethnicity and race.
“I find it abhorrent in 2017 that people were marching down the streets of Charlottesville, not in hoods in the light of day, shouting antisemitic, racist, rants,” Barr said.
” Good leaders create stability,” he added. “They articulate a vision surrounded by a value set.”