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Obama to tap rabbi, religious freedom veteran, for ambassador spot

Published: Tuesday, July 29 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, July 29 2014 11:55 a.m. MDT

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, USA; speaks during the session "Forum Debate: Religion and Politics" at the annual meeting 2013 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 25, 2013. On Monday, President Obama said he intends to nominate Saperstein as U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.

Mirko Ries, swiss-image.ch

WASHINGTON — Around the time that "The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson's controversial film about Jesus' last days, stirred cries of anti-Semitism from some quarters when it opened in 2004, Rabbi David N. Saperstein addressed a Georgetown University class taught by his friend E.J. Dionne.

Instead of charging in with an attack on the movie, Saperstein began by saying that "if you believe the birth of Jesus is the most important event in human history, you can't help but be moved by this movie," Dionne, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor at Georgetown, recalled Monday.

Once that rapport was established with the students, Saperstein was able to "show why someone might see moments in that movie smacked of anti-Semitism," Dionne said.

It was, he added, "one of the most extraordinary teaching moments."

Saperstein may soon have the opportunity to use his diplomatic and communications skills on a global platform. President Barack Obama said he intends to nominate Saperstein, a veteran religious liberty advocate, as the first non-Christian to serve as U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, a post vacant for nine months since the resignation of Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook.

In February, the president pledged he would nominate a replacement.

Saperstein, 66, is director and legal counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the advocacy arm of the Union of Reform Judaism that represents 1.3 million Americans affiliated with that branch of the Jewish faith, and has worked with the Center for 40 years. He holds a bachelor's degree from Cornell University, an M.H.L. from Hebrew Union College, and a doctorate from American University. Along with his years at the Reform Judaism organization, he was a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2010-11.

He was also the first chairman of the U.S. Council on International Religious Freedom, a body created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. It was legislation for which he and John Carr, then director of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, worked together to move through Congress.

Through it all, Saperstein has impressed colleagues on the left and right not only with his dedication, but also his evenhandedness.

"Rabbi Saperstein is a respected thinker and leader who brings gravity to this important task," said Russell Moore, president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. "He has my prayers and my pledge of full cooperation."

Controversial positions

Newsweek magazine once termed Saperstein the country's "most influential" rabbi, and The Washington Post once called him the "quintessential religious lobbyist on Capitol Hill."

But the lack of organized opposition to his nomination doesn't necessarily mean the confirmation process will be smooth sailing. At least one detractor, Rev. Jonathan Morris, a Roman Catholic priest and Fox News commentator from New York City, took to Facebook to blast the move.

"No! Obama's nominee for Intnl. Religious Freedom was against partial birth abortion ban and says Hobby Lobby decision is 'deeply troubling,'" the post read.

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