1. You have a successful congregation. Why run for Congress?
I've been looking around and I've seen our nation's values eroded and the fabric of our society frayed. I never thought Congress could be so broken. This is not a time for anyone in our country to sit on the sidelines.
My run for Congress is based on the same commitment to problem solving, service, and community that drove me to become a rabbi 37 years ago.
We need leaders who have a sense of what is right—like ensuring everyone has affordable health care—and what is wrong, like allowing our elections to be controlled by the wealthy and by special interests. And we need leaders with the courage to work together to solve these problems. Politics has been used to divide our nation but I believe politics can be a force to unite, heal, and restore our country.
2. How does your background as a rabbi prepare you for politics?
Running for Congress is what I'm called to do by my tradition and by my sense of responsibility that we need to leave the world and our nation better than we found it.
Part of the job of both clergy and political leaders is to be able to have a vision and articulate that vision. I think a lot of politicians no longer have a vision.
In addition, there’s a lot of pain in America these days. As a rabbi, my responsibility has been to bring people together to deal with people's pain, to comfort them when they are in crisis, to work with them through some of their worst moments.
Being a rabbi also means being a good listener. A lot of career politicians like to talk but not to listen and I want to do the opposite of that.
So, I want to bring my skills and experiences from being a rabbi for 37 years to our nation to bridge the divide and get people to talk, because we need people who can talk, listen, and work together to solve our problems.
3. What do you feel the biggest challenge will be running in OH-1 and how do you overcome it?
This is a district that Donald Trump won by a few points, and we’re clear-eyed about what that means. We’re taking nothing for granted. My campaign already started having conversations with voters in Hamilton and Warren Counties.
There’s a lot of pain in America these days, and as clergy, I’m used to listening to people—that’s what I’ve been doing my entire adult life.
The fact is people are looking for a change—and what they’re looking for now is different from the change they were looking for two decades ago. As an example, the incumbent congressman, Steve Chabot, voted to cut more than a trillion dollars from Medicaid, a program that half the kids here at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital count on. That doesn’t reflect my values, and I don’t think that reflects the values of our community.
Our campaign will be different. I’m a different kind of candidate. My campaign is values-driven. And I’m not looking for a career in politics.
4. As you know, OH-1 has a strong concentration of Catholics on the west side and a strong group of evangelicals in the Northeast. How do you reach out to these groups?
I’ve been active in the interfaith community here for many years, and have long relationships with communities of faith. I actually gave a sermon at a Christmas service a few years ago.
We’re going to reach out to these groups the same way we’ll reach out to all voters, by talking about our shared values, and the need to change our politics by electing people who will be focused on solving big problems and looking to be part of the solution.
The fact is we have a culture in which people are no longer able to talk and listen to each other. We must find a way to use politics to bring us together, and for me that starts right now with conversations we’re having in neighborhoods and communities.
I’m willing to talk to every voter in the district, and I think when they get to know me, those who may not have thought of voting for me will decide I’m the one they can trust.
5. You know one of my favorite topics is values. Is there a connection to religion? If so, how would you describe it from your experience?
Values infuse all aspects of life. Whether we define ourselves as religious or not, values help determine how to respond to the questions life asks us. Each person has a responsibility to make decisions based upon his or her core values and beliefs.
It is important as we draw upon our values not to impose them upon others. Our values should inform our decision-making and provide a framework in which to weigh and discern. Ultimately, each person is responsible for the decisions and choices he or she makes.
6. What is your favorite sermon?
Of all the sermons I've given, one stands out in my mind. I had the honor of participating in a ceremony honoring non-Jewish individuals who protected and saved Jews during World War II. The ceremony was organized by Yad Vashem (the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel), and someone I had met who protected a member of my congregation along with many others was recognized that day. I had the opportunity to speak at the event. Present that day were rescuers, the people they saved, their children and grandchildren. It was powerful to be standing in that sanctuary realizing how the actions of one individual can impact the world. I was proud to have helped honor people who were genuine heroes, yet who saw themselves as simply people who did what is right. Being there that day and being in their presence continues to inspire and challenge me to recognize my responsibility to make the world better.
7. What one question am I not asking that I should be asking … and your answer?
What makes your campaign different from the other 434 races for Congress next year?
My answer is there’s an opportunity here to make history. I’m the first pulpit rabbi to run for Congress, and would be the first rabbi ever elected to Congress.
But I'm not running for Congress as a rabbi. I'm a rabbi running for Congress. The Founders conceived of Congress as a place where citizens of all sorts of backgrounds could come together and get things done. I want to get things done for the people of southwest Ohio, and I know I have the ability to bring people together to do it.
Rabbi Robert B. Barr, ordained by the Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, founded the Beth Adam congregation and has served as rabbi for 37 years. In 2010, Rabbi Barr founded OurJewishCommunity.org and he serves with, and has held leadership roles in, numerous Jewish, interfaith, and civic community organizations. If you would like to know more about his campaign or contribute, please visit robertbarrforcongress.com or follow Rabbi Robert Barr for Congress on Facebook.