WASHINGTON (JTA) — There were rabbis, there were arguments, there was fretting over the future, there was mishpacha, but snacks you had to bring yourself.
The first virtual convention, held by Democrats online because of the coronavirus pandemic, had many of the same Jewish moments as real-life conventions of the past. They included both rabbinic invocations from the main stage and side rooms with hobnobbing among Jews from across the country, even if those rooms lacked kosher nosh this time around.
This year, the mainstage conversation also addressed anti-Semitism explicitly.
Here are some snapshots, from the lighthearted cameos by Jews to the substantive conversations that took place behind the scenes.
Anti-Semitism takes center stage
This year, one searing Jewish moment came in the acceptance speech of presidential nominee Joe Biden, who concluded the convention the same way he launched his campaign: by denouncing the forces behind the deadly 2017 neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the way President Donald Trump responded to it.
“Remember seeing those neo-Nazis and Klansmen and white supremacists coming out of the fields with lighted torches? Veins bulging? Spewing the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the ’30s?” Biden said.
“Remember the violent clash that ensued between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it?” he went on. “Remember what the president said? There were quote, ‘very fine people on both sides.’ It was a wake-up call for us as a country. And for me, a call to action. At that moment I knew I’d have to run.”
Biden wasn’t the only speaker to name anti-Semitism as a threat to America’s values, clearly connecting hatred against Jews to the racism and anti-immigrant sentiment in the country that this year’s convention repudiated forcefully. On the convention’s first night, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also cited anti-Semitism prominently in his speech.
The mentions elicited appreciation from some Jews who suggested that they had not expected to hear anti-Semitism called out specifically with such force.
A rabbi is traditionally included among the faith leaders offering invocations at the Democratic convention. This year, Rabbi Lauren Berkun, the director of rabbinic and synagogue programs for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, delivered a benediction after Biden spoke on Thursday, joined by a Roman Catholic priest and a Muslim imam.
A second rabbi also took the stage. Rabbi Michael Beals, of Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington, retold his story of meeting Biden at the shiva of a constituent of modest means. (Beals and his story has featured in a Jewish Democratic Council of America ad.)
And at least three rabbis could be spotted in the montage of Biden supporters watching the convention from home: Husband and wife team Ayelet Cohen and Mark Margolius of New York and Michael Latz of Minneapolis. Latz delivered the invocation at the first meeting of Jews for Biden last week.
Meet the mishpacha
Among the people speaking during the convention were the Jewish family members of Biden and vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris.
All three of Biden’s adult children have married Jews, and his Jewish granddaughter, Natalie, joined three cousins in describing their granddad’s pluses and foibles, which include raiding the freezer to eat vanilla ice cream right out of the tub.
Harris’s husband, Douglas Emhoff, is also Jewish, and his children from his first marriage famously call their stepmother “Momala.” The Yiddish-inflected term of affection, which rhymes with Harris’s first name, was used when Ella Emhoff spoke about her stepmother, and Harris herself used it during her speech.
Jewish also-rans have their moment
In an unusual moment, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker hosted an online panel of candidates who battled hard with Biden during the primaries and who were now here to praise him. It was half appreciation, half coffee klatsch.
They included Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was Biden’s closest competitor, who Booker said was the object of a crush by his girlfriend, actor Rosario Dawson. (Dawson voted for Sanders after Booker endorsed Biden in the primaries.)
“Why does my girlfriend like you more than she likes me?” Booker said. “Because she’s smarter than you and that’s the obvious answer,” Sanders shot back.
Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor and businessman who financed his own short-lived campaign earlier this year, also spoke. He sought to get under Trump’s skin, as he did during his convention appearance in 2016.
“Four years ago, I came before this very convention and said New Yorkers know a con when we see one,” Bloomberg said. “But tonight I’m not asking you to vote against Trump because he’s a bad guy. I’m urging you to vote against him because he’s done a bad job.”
It worked. Trump tweeted within minutes: “Mini Mike is trying to make a comeback by begging the Democrats for relevance.”
Other Jews who shaped the conversation
Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was among those murdered by a gunman at a Parkland, Florida high school, appeared twice: On Tuesday, to deliver Florida’s vote count to the nominating call, and on Thursday, among a montage of Americans asked to imagine their country in a year. “This time next year parents will again be able to look forward to the day when we can send our children without fear of violence,” said Guttenberg.
Former Rep. Gabby Giffords, the Jewish former congresswoman who was shot in the head during a mass shooting a decade ago, also spoke.
And Ady Barkan, the Israeli-American lawyer and activist who is dying of ALS, delivered an impassioned speech calling for Medicare for All, a health care policy that Biden has not endorsed.
Some behind-the-scenes Israel chatter
As in a typical convention, the most substantive conversations — about the future of the Democratic Party, and its approach to Israel policy — took place far from the mainstage.
A subset of progressive lawmakers have been lobbying to change the way the United States approaches Israel, but Biden and Harris are not among them, and the official party platform on Israel did not change this year.
Still, in an American Jewish Committee chat, Belle Yoeli, the chief of staff for the CEO, pushed hard against claims by AIPAC-friendly Democrats that the party’s pro-Israel ship was righted. Yoeli referred to the rise of Israel skepticism among progressives.
“How concerned should supporters of Israel be about these voices and how can we ensure that the U.S. Israel relationship does not fade in Congress?” she asked
Florida Rep. Ted Deutch, former Florida Rep. Robert Wexler and Halie Soifer, the director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.
“There is this enormous amount of attention paid to a very tiny percentage of the Democrats in the House and even in the freshman class,” Deutch said.
The challenge of keeping the party pro-Israel also arose in an online meeting J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, organized with Rep. Andy Levin, a J Street-allied Jewish Democrat from Michigan who enjoys a good working relationship with fellow Detroiter Rashida Tlaib, one of the congresswomen backing the boycott Israel movement.
Levin chafed when a reporter asked him what he thought about the departure of influential “staunchly pro-Israel Democrats” like Eliot Engel, the New Yorker and Foreign Affairs Committee chairman ousted by a progressive in a June primary. “Nobody’s more staunchly Israel than me,” he said. But he added: “In terms of the changing of the guard, I do think it’s very significant.”
Rep. Gregory Meeks from New York is running to replace Engel as Foreign Affairs Committee. In an online AJC chat on Thursday, he walked back what appeared to be his recent warning that Israel should not spend any of its assistance on annexing parts of the West Bank, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to do.
The $3.8 billion that Israel receives each year in defense assistance, Meeks told the AJC is “absolute, 100%, solid as a rock and I don’t think anyone can talk about tampering with that.