First Rabbi in Congress? Ohio Democrat Aims to Unseat Veteran Republican

Robert Barr will face a crowded primary field and is targeting a Republican who will have held the seat for 21 years over two stretches

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Rabbi Robert Barr, who hopes to win an Ohio congressional seat in 2018.
Rabbi Robert Barr, who hopes to win an Ohio congressional seat in 2018. Credit:

Ohio Rabbi Robert Barr said this week he’s running for Congress and hopes his health-care-friendly message will help him topple the long-serving Republican and make him the first rabbi in either house.

Barr, 62, will be running in the 1st congressional district, which covers most of Cincinnati. He’ll be one of a number of Democrats vying in the primary, ahead of the midterm election a little over a year from now.

In an interview with Haaretz on Wednesday, he spoke about his connection to Judaism and Israel, and about why he believes the Republican-leaning district is ready for change.

Barr is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Adam, an independent synagogue unaffiliated with a specific denomination. He grew up in a Conservative community and received his rabbinical training at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, which included a year of studies in Jerusalem. He then founded his congregation in Cincinnati-based Hamilton County 37 years ago.

Deciding to run for office, he says, is “an extension of why I became a rabbi in the first place. I wanted to promote the values of community and social justice. I think that after more than three decades as a rabbi, I can now bring necessary change in the political realm.”

The 1st district has been held by Republican Steve Chabot since 2010. Chabot also held the seat from 1995 to 2008, when he lost during the Democratic wave marked by Barack Obama’s election as president. The Democrats now hope the district will become competitive again in 2018.

“The first thing you need in order to win people’s votes is to win their trust, and you can only achieve that by listening to them and showing them that you care,” Barr says. “There’s a lot of pain in America these days, and as a rabbi, I’m used to listening to people — that’s what I’ve been doing for my entire adult life. A lot of career politicians like to talk but not to listen. I want to do the opposite of that.”

Barr says he plans to focus on issues like health care and strengthening local communities. “We need affordable health care in our country,” he says, blaming Republicans for supporting plans that would make millions of Americans lose their coverage.

“Voting against health care for Americans is bad for business and bad for our values,” he says, noting also that the Cincinnati area is rich in health care jobs.

Foreign policy isn’t expected to be a major part of the campaign in the district, but when asked about his positions and connection to Israel, Barr notes that he lived in the country for a year as a rabbinical student in the ‘70s, and has returned for both personal visits and as a leader of delegations.

He says that on one of those trips, he visited the apartment in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood where he lived as a student, and in general has noticed “how much things have changed” in Israel since the ‘70s.

Over the last decade, two rabbis ran and lost a general election for Congress, both in New Jersey. Dennis Shulman ran as a Democrat in 2008, Shmuley Boteach as a Republican 2012.

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