Rabbi Daniel Lapin wants to bring America's liberal Jewish establishment to its jerking knees.
He's been trying for the last decade -- ever since he founded Toward Tradition, a small conservative group based in the Seattle suburb of Mercer Island, Wash. -- to oppose what he describes as the stifling liberalism of America's leading Jewish organizations.
In recent months, however, the South African-born Orthodox rabbi (the former leader at the Pacific Jewish Center on Venice boardwalk), has taken his campaign to a new level entirely. Armed with an annual war chest that has tripled in recent years to more than $750,000, a recently hired, high-profile magazine editor and an array of Republican contacts, Lapin is poised to launch a long-term campaign against the largest Jewish organizations. His latest salvos include a recently launched journal, a pamphlet supporting school vouchers and a full-page ad that appeared in the June 29 New York Times.
Toward Tradition defines itself as a "national coalition of Jews and Christians" which offers the Torah and "authentic" Jewish values as a cure for many of the social ills facing America. Lapin said that a large part of his mission is, among other things, to undo what he characterizes as a liberal hijacking of a "boneheaded" Jewish communal establishment obsessed with anti-Semitism and unable to divorce leftist values from Jewish ones.
Critics have knocked Lapin and his organization for being politically out of step with American Jews, only 18 percent of whom identify themselves as political conservatives in a 2000 poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee. They have also cried foul over what they characterize as Toward Tradition's inappropriate name-calling and personal attacks. And that was before the organization's latest publicity push.
"Armed with baseless charges of racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia, the enforcers of tolerance intimidate civic and religious leaders, and the rest of us too, who tremble lest we violate its [sic] dictates," reads the upcoming ad.
Ironically, the top enforcers include major Jewish organizations. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization of 13 national Jewish agencies and 122 local federations and community councils, has consistently come down on the liberal side of abortion, school vouchers, gun control and other high-profile national issues.
The inaugural issue of the organization's journal sees such positions as at odds with the dictates of the Torah. Toward Tradition Editorial Director David Klinghoffer, a former editor at the conservative National Review and author of a book describing his embrace of Orthodox Judaism, endorses the view by the late Rabbi Avigdor Miller that Orthodox Jews who call themselves liberals must be "moral cowards."
Yarden Weidenfeld, Toward Tradition's national director, said that the group is now better equipped to publicize its message, thanks to increased financial support from its 2,000 to 3,000 supporters, about half of whom he estimates are Jewish. He added that the organization has a mailing list of more than 11,000 people who received the first issue of the journal. Toward Tradition is still outgunned by organizational giants like the 300,000-member strong Hadassah and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), with its $50-million budget.
Weidenfeld said that about three-quarters of Toward Tradition's board members are Jewish. The group is co-chaired by an Orthodox Jewish businessman from Mississippi, Samuel Silver, and the Protestant founder of Marine National Bank, Larry Smith. Smith has served on the boards of many conservative organizations, including the Family, Faith and Freedom Foundation, and was finance co-chair of Family Research Council President Gary Bauer's failed 2000 presidential bid.
Lapin speaks frequently before Evangelical Christian groups, and dismisses charges of anti-Semitism lobbed at their leaders and members. One of Toward Tradition's past chairmen, Jack Abramoff, is a Washington lobbyist with strong ties to Republican House Whip Tom Delay of Texas and other GOP officials. Some of these contacts appeared to have paid off in December, when Lapin was the only rabbi invited to President-elect Bush's first meeting with religious leaders, although a wider range of Jewish communal officials have been invited to the White House since then.
Critics have complained about Toward Tradition's string of press releases in recent months attacking mainstream Jewish organizations, leaders and institutions, including the ADL, Hadassah, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. One release called Hadassah "grumpy old ladies." Lapin awarded ADL National Director Abraham Foxman his "Our Own Worst Enemy" prize.
Foxman commented that he welcomed more conservative viewpoints in communal debates -- up to a point. "It's healthy as long as the language and criticism is civil," he said. "Unfortunately, what we have seen [from Toward Tradition] I think has crossed the line. Otherwise, God bless them."
Weidenfeld said that his organization had made an internal decision to be "a little bit more careful with our language." Lapin, however, showed no signs of backing down. "I say that when they do it, they call it standing up for principle. But when we do it, they call it harsh and mean-spirited," said Lapin, who is currently pushing a new book, "Buried Treasure: Secrets for Living from the Lord's Language" (Multnomah Books). He complained that conservative voices are silenced within Jewish establishment circles.
Other Jewish leaders charged that Lapin and Toward Tradition officials present their public-policy positions on welfare, tax reform and other topics as the only legitimate view that Judaism has to offer. For example, in a recent letter accompanying a pamphlet favoring education policies generally backed by conservatives, Klinghoffer argued that support for charter schools, tuition tax credits and vouchers represented the authentic Jewish answer to the education crisis. "The tradition is neither liberal nor conservative, it is the tradition," said Marc Stern, an Orthodox Jew who serves as assistant executive director of the mostly liberal American Jewish Congress. "It doesn't neatly coincide with the American political alignment."