WASHINGTON (JTA) — It was a week dedicated primarily to marking the election of the first African-American president in U.S. history, but the ongoing ceremonies were punctuated by several Jewish moments, wrinkles and parties.
Barack Obama’s supporters said it was a historic week for all Americans, and especially Jewish ones, to take pride in.
The sentiment was captured by David Axelrod, a newly appointed White House senior adviser and President Obama’s longtime strategic guru, during an appearance at the Jewish Community Inaugural Reception held the night before Tuesday’s midday inauguration.
Axelrod, who until recently has been shy about talking about his Jewishness, told the crowd of 800 that he was there “to do a little kvelling,” and then spoke movingly about feeling a rush of gratification when he saw Jews voting for Obama in overwhelming numbers. 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, Axelrod 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 the inauguration “would have been a great affirmation of that” idea.
“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 Emanuel,” Axelrod said to cheers.
Obama has surrounded himself with several key Jewish advisers, but no rabbis were tapped to give prayers at the inauguration, as Obama followed in the path of several of his recent predecessors in turning to Protestant clergymen. But three rabbis — one Reform (David Saperstein), one Conservative (Jerome Epstein), one Orthodox (Haskel Lookstein) — were slated to offer prayers at a Wednesday service, a move that left some observers impressed with the Obama team’s attention to the nuances of Jewish communal life.
But the inaugural was not without Jewish flourishes: During his invocation, Pastor Rick Warren recited (in English) the opening declaration of the Sh’ema prayer. In addition, one of California’s two Jewish senators — Democrat Dianne Feinstein — served as the emcee and Itzhak Perlman took part in an ensemble performance shortly before the swearing-in.
And, according to a source, there was a sizable contingent of American Jews at the Obama family’s private church service before the inauguration. Emanuel and Saperstein were present, as was Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s representative in Washington who attended Harvard Law School with Obama. They were joined by several Jewish supporters, including Lee Rosenberg, Lester Crown, Jim Crown, Alan Solow and Rabbi Jack Moline. Also there was First Lady Michelle Obama’s cousin, Rabbi Capers Funnye, the leader of a black Jewish congregation in Chicago.
The lead-up to the inauguration was packed with Jewish events, the headliner being the bash attended by Axelrod Monday night. The event, an hors d’oeuvres and drinks reception at the Capital Hilton in downtown D.C., was 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: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia and the Jewish federations of New York, Chicago and Washington. It was not an official inaugural event, but organizers said that prominent Obama supporters encouraged Jewish communal leaders to follow the lead of other ethnic groups by privately sponsoring such a gathering.
“You were all shareholders,” Axelrod said, 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” and 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, who campaigned for Obama in Virginia this fall, kept her remarks very brief, saying 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.” Michael Lieberman, the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington counsel, counted seven of his former summer interns in the crowd (including a JTA correspondent). But a portion of the tickets were made available as well to the general public, so some 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,” Charnes had spent lots of time campaigning in neighboring Colorado and raising money. She also spent 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.
One of Obama’s pitchmen to the Jewish community during the campaign was Tony Lake, the Clinton administration national security adviser who in recent years had converted to Judaism. Lake’s “Jew by choice for Obama” stump speech was a poignant way for an old foreign policy hand to make the pro-Israel case for a greenhorn senator from Illinois.
Lake all but disappeared after the campaign. He made a reappearance Monday night, not at Washington’s main Jewish event, but at the Arab American Institute dinner eight blocks away. Institute president Jim Zogby warmly praised Lake’s insights as a foreign policy heavy at a time when American Jews and Arabs routinely worked together to try and make the Oslo peace process work.
It was an odd, nostalgic note at an Arab American Institute event otherwise fraught with the aftermath of the Gaza Strip war. An official of Anera, the Palestinian relief group, described the devastation in the area. Its 17 staff and office were unharmed, and were beginning to distribute food and medicine to Gaza residents.
Most jarring, perhaps, was the Al Jazeera English set-up in a corner of the Fairmont Hotel ballroom. Producers from the network pulled over passers-by for comment on U.S. foreign policy. More than once, their voices rose above the natural crystal-clinking party din.
Three Jewish Congress members from South Florida — Ron Klein, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Robert Wexler — co-hosted an inauguration reception Monday at the Library of Congress. One couldn’t escape the impression that the crowds jammed into the second floor of the library’s Thomas Jefferson Building were pretty much evenly divided between African Americans and Jews — Obama’s most resilient consitituencies in the southern part of the Sunshine State. (Quipped one wag: Cubans don’t vote Democrat.)
Wasserman Schultz arrived late — apparently a habit for one of the busiest lawmakers on the Hill — but when she did, she was by far the most popular, constantly thronged by constituents. Much was made of her ‘do — Wasserman Schultz is famed for her curls, which she flaunted them during a Sunday event organized by the National Jewish Democratic Council — but apparently she opted for straight for Inauguration Day. Some in the room didn’t recognize her when she walked in.
While much of Washington was partying Sunday and Monday, the leaders of the Jewish Grassroots Action Network were working.
About 25 leaders of the group assembled an “action plan” laying out how they will go about choosing issues, and advocating for them, over the next four years. Then they partied Monday evening, with about 100 guests attending a kosher inaugural ball, complete with a klezmer band, at D.C. synagogue Tifereth Israel Congregation.
The organization grew out of a Jews for Obama group — running the gamut from unaffiliated to Orthodox — that formed during the campaign. President Yocheved Seidman said she hopes to continue the activism that animated so many people over the last year, although she acknowledged that it is much easier to get people excited about a campaign rather than policy.
Obama “throughout the entire campaign said we can’t do this alone,” Seidman said, and her group hopes to advocate for issues that the president is pursuing when they advance Jewish values.
She said the organization will decide over the coming months on which areas they hope to focus and hopes to have a conference in Washington later in the year.
Assisting the group was Rabbi Yosef Blau, a spiritual adviser at Yeshiva University and president of the Religious Zionists of America. Blau, who wrote an influential article in The Jewish Week last spring encouraging Jews to respond to Obama’s effort to reach out to the community, said he was helping the group to frame its issues around traditional Jewish values, from providing jobs to offering health care.
Blau didn’t endorse Obama, but noted in an interview — and later in a speech to the ball attendees — that he found similarities between “Obama’s sensibility and Jewish sensibility” on the issue of fighting evil. He noted that in the August forum at Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddelback Church, Republican candidate John McCain talked about how the United States must defeat the evil represented by the Iranian regime. Obama, on the other hand, said that while the U.S. must contain Iran, “only God can defeat evil” — a point Blau found to be “consistent with Jewish tradition.”
“I danced with Barack at the National Synagogue,” exclaimed Debra Kirsch late Sunday night.
Actually, it was only a cardboard cutout of the president-elect, but Kirsch was one of a couple hundred people who celebrated Obama’s inauguration at a Washington shul Sunday night.
The National Jewish Inaugural Ball at Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue was the brainchild of Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who wanted to give Jews a place to celebrate the inauguration in a Jewish setting.
Herzfeld noted Sunday night that it was an “inaugural ball according to Jewish law,” with kosher food and men and women dancing separately to a klezmer band.
Howard Gutman of Bethesda, Md., an early member of Obama’s finance committee and a trustee of the inauguration, predicted that as the new president gets to know the city, “I can just about guarantee that Barack Obama will come to this shul one day soon” because Herzfeld is such a dynamic presence in the city.
A promised toast from actor Louis Gossett Jr. didn’t materialize — the Academy Award winner couldn’t make it — but Obama campaign Jewish outreach and Middle East staffer Dan Shapiro did offer a toast to the “wonderful inspiration” that Herzfeld had for the event — and to the future.
This is a time, Shapiro said, that everyone feels is “full of possibility for our country, for our community, full of possibility for a safe Israel, for a better future than we have had.”
“There’s a lot of work to do, and we need everybody’s help to get it done,” said Shapiro, who is likely to get a foreign policy position in the Obama administration.
Other toasters included Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver and “the only Jewish legislator in North Dakota,” Eliot Glassheim. The latter said that he gets to recite a prayer in Hebrew once a year at the North Dakota House of Representatives, and “the whole Legislature is dumbstruck and they love it.”
Former New York Knick John Starks, another promised guest, was a no-show, but spotted in the crowd were Bahrain Ambassador to the United States Houda Nonoo (who is Jewish), former AIPAC staffer and current trial defendant Steve Rosen, and “Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” filmmaker Aviva Kempner.
Walking into the Science Club in downtown Washington early Sunday evening, the sign at the entrance said that the J Street inauguration party was “underground.”
“Underground,” though, was referring only to the section of the bar in which the bash was taking place, not the organization. The fairly new “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group has been under fire in the past few weeks from some prominent Jewish leaders — particularly Union of Reform Judaism president Rabbi Eric Yoffie — over its criticism of Israel’s Gaza operation. But there were plenty of young Jewish adults who were willing to offer strong support for the newest voice in the D.C. pro-Israel community.
Dan Scarvalone, 22, who recently finished a stint as an Obama campaign field organizer, noted that Judaism has always encouraged a “multiplicity of viewpoints” and “American Jews are tired of hearing one viewpoint” on the Israel issue.
“The fact is, Israel’s not a perfect state — I don’t feel everything the Jewish state does is perfect,” he said.
“I respect Eric Yoffie,” Scarvalone said, but argued that J Street hadn’t “crossed the line in any way” in its criticism of the Gaza operation.
Of course, some of the 75 or so revelers were more interested in a place to celebrate the inauguration than Middle East policy. As one partygoer said when asked why she was there, “My housemate’s friend works for J Street.”
J Street also had a closed-to-the-press wine-and-cheese party earlier in the day for its top donors and the members of Congress it endorsed. Singer Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, also stopped by and performed.
Israel, the Palestinians, the Irish — they all got the Bono shout out at the inauguration festivities on Monday. Martin Luther King’s dream, Bono declared from the Lincoln Memorial where King first described it, was “not just an American dream — also an Irish dream, a European dream, African dream, Israeli dream and also” — dramatic pause — “a Palestinian dream!”