Gary Rosenblatt

Missing Joe Lieberman Already

Sitting in the pews of Agudath Sholom in Stamford, CT the morning of March 29, and listening to the heartfelt tributes for the synagogue’s most famous congregant, I found myself thinking back to 2000, when Sen. Joe Lieberman became the nation’s first Jew to run on a major party’s presidential ticket.

Not only Jews were pleased by Vice President Al Gore’s choice of running mate. Many Americans appreciated a candidate faithful to the tenets of his religion, that rare politician respected for his authenticity and integrity. And, though anticipated, there was little sign of antisemitism during the three months of the 2000 national campaign.

We’ve come a long way since then in terms of attitudes toward Jews, and unfortunately, too much of it in the wrong direction.

Each of the five veteran political leaders who spoke at the funeral – former Vice President Al Gore, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, Connecticut US Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, and former Connecticut US Senator Chris Dodd –  bemoaned the fact that bipartisanship in Washington is a lost art. And that Joe Lieberman, who ran and kept his Senate seat as an Independent after leaving the Democratic party, was a model of dialogue, decency and cooperation across the aisle, widely admired (though at times vilified) for following his own path. But even sharp criticism of him was not about his faith.

How sad, frightening and still bewildering that 24 years later, blatant and widespread antisemitism – sometimes violent – has become commonplace in the Land of the Free.

In recent years, antisemitism and anti-Zionism have merged; much of the world insists that only one nation on the planet does not deserve to exist. Within one day after October 7, when the barbarians of Hamas slaughtered Israeli men, women and children in ways unimaginable, protests took place around the world. But the crowds were not condemning Hamas for murdering, raping and kidnapping innocents as part of the terror group’s expressed goal of genocide against Jews. Instead, defying logic and basic humanity, it was Israel that was demonized as genocidal.

Angry, hateful feelings toward Jews were suddenly out in the open.

In the US, Jews of all stripes are labeled “Zionists,” now a dirty word, and are the target of verbal and physical attacks. Calls to be rid of Israel are heard from elite college campuses to large city rallies from coast to coast. Task forces have been formed by universities and communities to study and respond to antisemitism, but little will come of such charades. The reality is that the problem has been around since the Egyptian Pharaoh and Persian Haman hated Jews for being different from the rest of society.

In the last century, many American Jews shed much of their religious identity and tradition in the hope of being accepted. But since October 7, we’ve come to learn, as European Jews realized too late, that secular or observant, Zionist or not, we are one in the eyes of our enemies: Jews.

We have no solution for antisemitism because we aren’t the problem; the problem is the haters, not us. Our response should be to do all we can to sustain, deepen and expand Jewish life in ways that have helped our people survive for several thousand years.

The message for Jews on campus is not so much to try to counter “the tsunami” of antisemitic sentiment, but “to build your own strong ark” based on the wisdom of the ages, steeped in ritual, ethics and community, according to Sarah Hurwitz, who has been visiting college campuses on behalf of Hillel over the last several months.

A former speechwriter for both Barack and Michelle Obama during their White House years and author of an enlightening book about her transformation, in her mid-30s, from lapsed to engaged Jew– “Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life – in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There” –  Hurwitz said her experience in talking to Jewish students at more than two dozen campuses has been “sobering, horrifying.”

Every campus is different, she told me, “but the bad ones are really bad, and no campus I’ve visited has had zero problems” for Jewish students these last six months.

“African-American students aren’t heckled for wearing a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt,” Hurwitz said, “gay students aren’t heckled for wearing a “Pride” t-shirt, so why are Jewish students heckled – or worse – if they wear a Jewish star?”

At work on a book now about why so many American Jews have abandoned their religious tradition, Hurwitz asserts that the search for Jewish meaning and fulfillment can be found in the words of our sages, modern as well as ancient.

“Study is the most important form of Jewish worship,” she said, adding that she tells students today to “live your Jewish story.”

A Hero To Many Of Us

Joe Lieberman was a man who lived his Jewish story, not by preaching about his beliefs but practicing them in his daily life, treating all of God’s children with respect, whether it was negotiating with colleagues in Congress or engaging a taxi driver in Manhattan.

A fervent supporter of Israel, he often noted that “if good people stand by while bad things are being done, evil will triumph.”

Of the 10 books he wrote, I’m told his favorite was “The Gift of Rest,” on the Sabbath, Shabbat. In it he shared for Christians as well as Jews the blessings of a day set aside for prayer, family and community.

My wife and I were fortunate to have shared Shabbat meals with Joe and his wife, Hadassah, and witness their love for each other and for the rituals and respite from daily life that made Shabbat an oasis of peace. He was a hero to many of us – and perhaps especially for observant Jews –  for the seamless way he blended his religious, personal and professional lives in ways that could only be defined, Al Gore noted, as “a mensch.”

How fitting that in recent months Yeshiva University launched the Senator Joseph Lieberman-Mitzner Center for Public Service and Advocacy, sponsored in large part by the Ira Mitzner and Riva Collins families. “With Senator Lieberman as its model,” the announcement noted, “the Center will empower the next generation of government leaders and public advocates, with a national and international focus, who are deeply rooted in Jewish values and tradition.”

It is more than sad that Joe Lieberman will not be there to participate in the program or take pleasure in seeing young men and women continue in the path he established. But the center and the many other worthy efforts to engage young Jews in exploring their heritage are of critical importance at this moment of deep crisis in Jewish history.

With Israel’s very future at risk and virulent antisemitism spreading across the globe, teenagers and college students are confronting a critical decision in their lives, consciously or not. Will they step away from their Jewish identity or lean into it, recognizing the blessing – and challenge – of continuing an ancient tradition and making a Jewish life of their own?

Joe Lieberman showed us a way to embrace values of ethics, morality and social justice that embody the ideals of both our American democracy and Jewish heritage.

May his memory be a blessing.

About the Author
Gary Rosenblatt is the former editor and publisher of The Jewish Week of New York. Follow him at
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