Jewish banker sets heartfelt tone for Obama speech


WASHINGTON (JTA) — In times like these, “Jewish banker” might seem an unlikely descriptor for “hero,” but that’s who President Obama chose to make his point about being generous in hard times.

Obama’s salute to Leonard Abess in his state of the nation speech Tuesday was likely to bring a dose of pride to a community that has been unnerved by the 24/7 coverage of another Jewish banker, Bernie Madoff, and allegations of Madoff”s robbing from the poor (and the wealthy) to keep himself rich.

Jewish groups in general were quite pleased with the speech, which emphasized economic recovery through government-directed stimulus. Obama also briefly touched on foreign affairs, stressing his commitment to outreach when it comes to dealing with the Middle East, but also hinting at toughness should recalcitrant nations like Iran not be forthcoming.

The most emotional Jewish moment, perhaps, was that involving Abess.

“I have also learned that hope is found in unlikely places; that inspiration often comes not from those with the most power or celebrity, but from the dreams and aspirations of Americans who are anything but ordinary,” Obama said in the first of a number of references to the upper reaches of the Capitol, where a president’s chosen “heroes” sit with the first lady.

“I think of Leonard Abess, a bank president from Miami who reportedly cashed out of his company, took a $60 million bonus and gave it out to all 399 people who worked for him, plus another 72 who used to work for him,” Obama said, as Abess barely contained his emotions. “He didn’t tell anyone, but when the local newspaper found out, he simply said, ‘I knew some of these people since I was 7 years old. It didn’t feel right getting the money myself.'”

According to the biography of Abess posted by City National Bank, Abess is a board member of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and the Anti-Defamation League.

“Leonard Abess, who gave millions to employees, is a Miami Jewish federation leader,” William Daroff, the United Jewish Communities’ Washington director, Twittered with pride.

“Leonard and his family have been very generous supporters of the fed for as long as I can remember,” Jacob Solomon, the executive vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, told JTA.

“They really bring to life what we mean when we say the Jews should be ‘ohr la-goyim,’ ” a light unto the nations.

Obama’s warmth was returned by Jewish lawmakers, who were among the first to stand and applaud the president’s initiatives. Chief among them was Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who rollicked with laughter after Obama countered Republican heckling about the spending portions of the stimulus package with a grin, a pause and a sentence that began: “With the deficit we inherited …”

The night contained several other Jewish moments, whether poignant, political humorous or stylish.

There were plenty of hugs and cheers for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is recovering from pancreatic cancer treatment.

After the speech, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) got a hug from the president even though Lieberman supported Obama’s Republican opponent during the election. During the speech, Lieberman delivered his trademark avuncular applause at Obama’s pledge to make sure tax-funded loans go to taxpayers.

Though the speech wasn’t an official State of the Union address, U.S. Rep Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) kept tradition going, managing to get through to the front lines to shake the president’s hand on his way out. So did Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schutlz (D-Fla.), sans her recent perm. But Jewish fashion watchers still had something to discuss thanks to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who sported a Miami-ready light green blazer.

Officials at several Jewish groups praised the speech and the direction of the stimulus.

“We felt at home in the speech,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, the public policy umbrella bringing together the synagogue movements, several national Jewish groups and local communities across North America.

Gutow noted that the three main pillars of Obama’s agenda — energy, health care and education — are all major priorities of his organization.

Daroff said he particularly liked the focus on “Jewish virtues,” such as education and health care, noting that caring for those in need is a pillar of the federation system. And he was glad to see Obama focus on energy at a time when the price of oil was relatively cheap.

In addition, “There were admirable nods toward bipartisanship,” said Daroff. He also called Obama “Reaganesque” for the “optimistic and upbeat” attitude he conveyed.

“It was about what we as Americans can do,” Daroff said.

In Obama’s brief references to foreign policies at the end of the speech, he coupled his calls for expanded diplomatic outreach to his quest for peace for Israel and its neighbors.

“In words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun,” he said. “For we know that America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, but the world cannot meet them without America. We cannot shun the negotiating table, nor ignore the foes or forces that could do us harm. We are instead called to move forward with the sense of confidence and candor that serious times demand. To seek progress towards a secure and lasting peace between Israel and her neighbors, we have appointed an envoy to sustain our effort.”

The speech did not mention Iran, but Obama’s emphasis on the “negotiating table” reflected his pledge to reach out to Iran’s leadership in a bid to have the Islamic Republic stand down from its suspected nuclear weapons program.

“To meet the challenges of the 21st century — from terrorism to nuclear proliferation; from pandemic disease to cyber threats to crushing poverty — we will strengthen old alliances, forge new ones, and use all elements of our national power,” he said.

The reference to “all elements” of national power could be read as a subtle invocation of threat of American might should all else fail with Iran.

Americans for Peace Now liked the emphasis on re-engagement.

“Friends of Israel should support the president’s commitment to work for secure and lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors,” said Ori Nir, the APN spokesman. “Regional leaders ought to take advantage of this new era of engagement that President Obama is ushering in. The president’s refreshing approach to the region, emphasizing the role of diplomacy, is a valuable opportunity for those seeking Mideast peace, stability and prosperity.”

Orthodox Union public policy director Nathan Diament said it made sense that the Jewish state was one of the few countries that Obama referenced in the speech because “the Middle East is the central venue for America’s greatest foreign policy challenges.”

“From the Obama perspective, constructive engagement is the central component of not only supporting Israel but advancing American interests,” Diament said.

Not everyone approved.

“He ignored 15 years of tragic failure” since the Oslo Accords “and said ‘continue with the ways of the past,’ ” said Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein. “He should have said we’re going to work to transform the Palestinian culture” and “demand they jail terrorists.”

Recommended from JTA