A sense of responsibility drew Rabbi Robert B. Barr to become a rabbi 37 years ago. Now, it’s compelling him to run for a seat in Congress.
Barr, 62, has filed papers as a Democratic candidate in Ohio’s 1st District, held by incumbent Steve Chabot, a Republican. Barr said he had thought about running for office off and on during his lifetime, but after seeing the “divisiveness and animosity” of the last election cycle, he decided now was the time to run.
“Unfortunately, politics in America today seem more about dividing us than uniting us,” said Barr, rabbi at Congregation Beth Adam, in the Cincinnati suburb of Loveland. “I felt I had a responsibility in this moment to stand up and say, ‘There is a way to bring America back together before we erode our commonality and fray the fabric of our society.’”
He said if elected he would use many of the same skills he would as a rabbi: the ability to listen, to recognize and respect commonality and diversity; and the ability to work respectfully together to find a common solution that “reflects the best of us.”
“It’s a process, not one moment,” Barr said.
The temple’s mission statement describes it as “a unique community integrating Jewish tradition and humanistic principles.” Among Beth Adam’s “core values” listed. “We value open-mindness and respect for differing views,” a sentiment which Barr’s overall campaign message seems to share.
Barr said his Judaism has affected his values, and he’s learned tikkun olam throughout his life.
“I think Judaism has always spoken to take responsibility of the poor, the orphaned, the widowed. ... I don’t think those values are exclusive (to Judaism.)”
Many Jews have served in Congress, but while there have been Protestant ministers and even a couple of Catholic priests who have been in the House of Representatives, no rabbis have ever served in either the House or the Senate. Only two rabbis have ever run for Congress – both in New Jersey – and both lost. Shmuley Boteach lost in 2012 and Dennis Shulman lost in 2008. Neither rabbi had led a congregation when they ran, unlike Barr, who has led Congregation Beth Adam since 1980.
If elected, Barr said his main focus would be to address the issue of health care in the country. Campaign finance reform and the environment were other issues Barr said he would particularly focus on if he were to be elected to Congress.
He also said that even though he is running for Congress, he is not seeking another career nor is he looking to be a career politician.
“I’m doing this out of a sense of responsibility,” he said. “Our country right now seems to be pulled apart, and as a function of the pulling apart, there is gridlock. And if we don’t change what we’re doing, we’re going to wake up one morning and realize we have been left behind by other nations.”
Barr attended school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati with Rabbi Richard A. Block, senior rabbi at The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood.
Block said he does not endorse candidates for partisan political office and does not know anything regarding Barr’s political views, but said he did remember Barr, though he hadn’t seen him for a long time.
“I remember him as an intelligent, warm and thoughtful person,” Block said.
When Barr was asked if being the first rabbi in Congress would have special meaning for him, he said the simple answer was “yes.”
“I would be proud to do that, to represent the (Jewish) community that way,” he said. “But I think it’s more than just a rabbi getting elected. I would be proud of the fact that people are hearing my message of how to work together to create a country that hears each other’s pain and addresses problems. That’s why. I’m not running to be the first rabbi (in Congress), I am a rabbi.”