DENVER (JTA) – For the party trying to change the impression that it hasn’t got enough religion, Democrats got maybe a little too much on Sunday.
Hundreds of party faithful got dollops of, well, faith in the cavernous Wells Fargo Theater in what organizers repeatedly reassured whoever would listen was the first time a major party convention was launched with a faith meeting (assuming the Temperance Party doesn’t count).
“We didn’t need to bring faith to the party!” Leah Daughtry, a Pentecostal preacher who is also the convention’s CEO, shouted out. “Faith was already here!”
If the Democrats wanted to look diverse, they managed to do so with the absence of a white male Protestant until a very brief glimpse at the very end of the service: There were three Muslims (including two women), four rabbis (three men and one woman), a Buddhist, three African American preachers, and so on. (The white male Protestant was Rev. Shaun Casey, who joined Rabbi Marc Schneier, an imam and a Catholic lay leader in delivering the closing remarks.)
There was a diversity of political opinion as well, making this religious gambit, well, typically Democratic.
A highlight was the keynote speech by Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, who directs the Orthodox Union. His exegesis of the concept of neighborliness, drawing on biblical Talmudic and modern rabbinical examples (Rav Kook cited at a Democratic convention? Go figure), drew enthusiastic applause. He drew more than one strong “Amen!” prompting him to plead to laughter, “Let’s try the Hebrew amen, Ah-mein.”
The crowd complied and he said, “Now I feel at home.”
He felt at home enough that he managed to insinuate into his speech a couple of notions not usually sounded at Democratic gatherings, including support for school vouchers.
One salutary effect: Clergy got to see how familiar liturgy plays with an unfamiliar crowd. When Weinreb recounted the story of Hillel explaining the Torah to a non-Jew standing on one leg, the punchline drew gales of laughter.
“‘That which is hateful to you do not do unto your neighbors, that’s all of God’s teachings, the rest is commentary,’” Hillel explained, Weinreb said. “And finally he said, ‘Now go out and study the commentary.’”
Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va, who delivered an opening prayer, remarked afterward, “I didn’t know that story was funny!”
Schwartzman made the remark as she and Rabbi Steven Foster, of Denver’s Congregation Emanuel, busily typed away into their respective cell phones – from Hillel to the 21st century in a flash!
They didn’t get a chance to sample the corned beef sandwiches, but more than a couple hundred people, Jews and non-Jews, came out to Zaidy’s Deli in Denver on Sunday afternoon for a “Nosh and Shmooze.”
That was what Democratic National Committee vice chair Susan Turnbull called the welcome party she hosted for her friends.
Among those noshing on cheese, crackers, brownies, lemon bars and other desserts were U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), American Jewish Congress president Richard Gordon and American Israel Public Affairs Committee chairman of the board Howard Friedman.
Turnbull noted that when she first was talking last winter about hosting the event, some of her colleagues didn’t know what a nosh was. So her invitations to the event provided definitions for both nosh – to snack – and shmooze – to stand around and talk. And, Turnbull pointed out, that’s what everyone did.
For Jimmy Carter, it was Katrina, not the Middle East.
Democrats were determined not to allow the former president to spoil their Denver party with talk of evenhanded policies in the Middle East. No mention, please, of “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” the book whose title set off a firestorm in the pro-Israel community.
So they screened a video of Carter’s work helping to rebuild homes in Gulf Coast areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. After his presentation, Carter did a quick live stage stroll holding wife Rosalynn’s hand to a standing ovation, and then retreated without a word.
In 2004, Carter addressed the convention and even mentioned the Middle East. That, however, was before the book and his meeting this year with Hamas leaders – undertaken partly, it must be said, in a bid to free captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Jews and Arabs can work out a few rules for getting along, at least when it comes to the Democratic convention.
Sunita Leeds, a member of the National Jewish Democratic Council’s executive committee, co-chaired the party’s Rules Committee with Mary Rose Oakar, the former Ohio congresswoman who is now president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
At the launch of the business part of the Denver convention on Monday, Leeds’ job was to note efforts by the committee to address difficulties surrounding the role of unpledged delegates – the thousand or so folks that under current rules can throw the popular vote out the window.
Then she introduced Oakar as the leader of the “largest Arab-American grassroots civil rights organization in the country.” Oakar named the nominees for convention chair and co-chairs; all five are women.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) was all smiles about Joe Biden’s clinch of the vice-presidential spot on Barack Obama’s ticket.
“He’s like mishpoche!” the Florida congresswoman enthused to JTA, contemplating the Delaware senator’s clinching of the vice presidential spot on the Democratic ticket.
Back in 1987, Wasserman Schultz explained, she was a member of the Florida chapter of Students for Biden. That campaign went down early in the primaries after Biden’s temper and allegations of plagiarism got the better of him.
Now it’s make-up time, and Wasserman Schultz thinks Biden, a familiar face on the schema-and-schmooze circuit up and down the East Coast, will do a great job winning over older Jewish constituents embittered by the loss of U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to Obama.
“He’ll come down and move around the bagel places and the condos,” she said. “It’ll be like a son.”
The potential for an attack on Iran? That’s not Charlie Wilson’s war.
“I don’t think we should invade Iran tomorrow,” the former Texas Democratic congressman told JTA. Wilson, known for his efforts to rout the Soviets from Afghanistan, gained Hollywood fame last year when Tom Hanks played him on film in “Charlie Wilson’s War.”
“I don’t think we should invade Russia. I’m a little concerned that the current administration is a bit trigger happy,” Wilson told JTA before he let his voice trail and begged off, noting that as a happy retiree in Texas all this war talk wasn’t his business anymore.
Wilson, in his time a leading congressional friend to Israel – who drew on the friendship to help arm the Afghan mujahedeen – was attending the National Jewish Democratic Council’s Sunday evening convention launch, where he encountered a lot of friendly hugs.
One overheard tidbit: Wilson told friends he thought Julia Roberts, who played Joanne Herring, the Texas socialite who financed his escapades and, um, enjoyed his company, got the role just right in the film. Herring is on the record as saying Roberts’ portrayal veered into unladylike behavior she never would have countenanced.
(These items were adapted from JTA’s election blog (blogs.jta.org/politics.)