David Axelrod said he came to the Jewish Community Inaugural Reception "to do a little kvelling."
The senior adviser to Barack Obama told the 800 people in the crowd on Monday evening that he felt an "enormous sense of pride and satisfaction and gratitude" when he pored through the exit polls on Election Night and saw 78 percent of American Jews voted for Obama. Axelrod also reached back into his own family story to illustrate the "promise" of Obama’s election.
Recalling how his father and grandparents fled Bessarabia after their home was blown up in the pogroms, he said they "weren’t just looking for a place of safety, they were looking for a place of promise and opportunity."
"They were drawn to America — America was that beacon," he said. And Tuesday "would have been a great affirmation of that" idea, Axelrod added. "Not just that we elected Barack Obama, but that their son will be 20 feet from the Oval Office, and have a chief of staff named Rahm Emaunel," he said to cheers.
Axelrod spoke at the official Jewish community inaugural event, an hors d’oeuvres and drinks reception at the Capital Hilton in downtown D.C.
Sponsored by nine organizations — the National Jewish Democratic Council, the United Jewish Communities, the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, AIPAC, NCSJ and the Jewish federations of New York, Chicago and Washington — the reception was not an official inaugural event, but organizers said that prominent Obama supporters encouraged Jewish communal leaders to — like other ethnic groups — privately sponsor such a gathering.
"You were all shareholders," said Axelrod, and "you’re going to be our partners as we move forward and try to fulfill the commitments we have made."
Elie Wiesel also spoke, praising Obama’s "absolute passion for human decency," while calling the new president "a friend to the Jewish people."
Wiesel has high expectations for the new commander-in-chief. He said he was "convinced" that Obama "will bring an end to the tragedy in Darfur" as well as convinced he will utilize "his energy and passion" to bring about "peace in the Middle East." The Nobel Laureate added that Obama’s election makes him think that his son and daughter will one day be "celebrating the first Jewish president of the United States."
Actress Debra Winger also was on hand –she campaigned for Obama in Virginia this fall — but kept her remarks very brief, saying that she hoped "all our prayers are answered."
A short speech was a wise decision, because the excitement in the room meant many partygoers wanted to chat more than listen to speeches. Earlier in the evening, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) twice had to ask the crowd to quiet down during his remarks, and it took a very loud demand by someone in the crowd to finally achieve silence for Wiesel — as well as Axelrod.
The hall was filled with rabbis, Jewish leaders and virtually all of what one might call "official Jewish Washington." Anti-Defamation League Washington counsel Michael Lieberman counted seven of his former summer interns in the crowd (including your correspondent). But a portion of the tickets were also made available to the general public, so there were some who had come long distances simply to celebrate the new president. Joanna Charnes had left the Sundance Film Festival in her hometown of Park City, Utah for the nation’s capital on Saturday night.
As a resident of a "very red state," she had spent lots of time campaigning in neighboring Colorado and raising money — as well as hours a day refuting the Internet rumors that circulated about Obama in the Jewish community throughout the campaign.
"I can’t stop getting tears in my eyes," she said.