Tuesday, January 20th, 2009
James Besser in Washington
It was a day of joyous celebration for the many thousands of African Americans who came to Washington to witness the inauguration of President Barack Obama, but Jews weren’t exactly slackers in the celebration department.
Inaugural events provided ample opportunity for Jewish machers to see and be seen – and for advocacy groups to display their political connections.
The standout Jewish event was a Capital Hilton reception for almost 1000 people organized by the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), AIPAC and the United Jewish Communities. Co-sponsors included Jewish Federations from New York, Washington and Chicago, the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and NCSJ.
The event was a veritable who’s who of official Jewry; even Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel had a hard time being heard over the sound of hyperactive networking.
The guy who kept getting accosted by folks wanting their picture taken with him was Al Franken, the Democrat who could be sworn in as the next senator from Minnesota – if the courts throw out challenges by the incumbent he leads by about 200 votes, Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican.
Franken proved that he has completed the transition from comedian to sober lawmaker; asked by the Jewish Week if the glittery reception was more fun than fighting in court over the contested election, he first looked puzzled, then answered in all seriousness: “I haven’t been in court, my lawyers have.”
David Axelrod, Obama’s political guru, worked the crowd with a look of dazed satisfaction on his face. The Chicago political consultant, who talked briefly about his own family’s background in Bessarabia, said he reacted with “an enormous sense of pride , satisfaction and gratitude” to the 78 percent Jewish vote for Obama, which came after almost a year of predictions that Republican nominee John McCain would win a record proportion of Jewish votes.
At an “Inaugural Jewish Ball” sponsored by The National Synagogue in Washington, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld – who also serves as Washington director Amcha: the Coalition for Jewish Concerns – danced a wild hora to a klezmer band with an African-American singer, a fitting symbol for an inauguration week marking the fall of racial barriers.
Also in attendance: Houda Ezra Nonoo, the ambassador from Bahrain and the first Jewish ambassador from an Arab country, who diplomatically said “it’s a great day” without exactly saying what was great about it.
Attendance was skewed to the Orthodox, the only segment of the community that did not vote overwhelmingly for the Democrat, but that didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm at the big Obama party.
“ Everybody is very hopeful,” Herzfeld said. “And it is part of our tradition to pray for the success of our leaders. A lot of people wanted to celebrate; we offered them a kosher way of doing that, with kosher food, separate dancing for men and women and toasts in a Jewish context.”
The spanking-new Jewish Grassroots Action Network – created by Yocheved Seidman, a young Lubavitcher from Ithaca, on the foundation of her Jews for Obama organization – held a series of workshops and fabrengen, the opening shots of what the group hopes will be a new, centrist Jewish movement united behind the new president.
Officials of NJDC, a group that helped engineer the overwhelming Jewish vote for Obama on November 4, were hovering between exaltation and exhaustion. The group proved its political adaptability by cosponsoring the big Monday evening reception with the likes of AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents, but also a breakfast with J Street, the upstart pro-peace process lobby and political action committee that is challenging the old pro-Israel order.
Other pro-peace process groups were out in force; the most creative was Americans for Peace Now (APN), which rented a mobile billboard with the slogan “Make Peace Happen…Yes We can” to broadcast its message to the throngs clogging downtown streets.
“Because we knew that we were addressing the general public, we chose a simple message of hope,” said APN spokesman Ori Nir. “I joined the driver for a couple of hours Sunday and saw dozens of people stopping to take photos of the truck. There was even a group of Israeli tourists, delighted to see the Israeli flag and Shalom Achshav in Hebrew, who were happy to hear that Americans expect the new president to be the one who will, at last, help Israel reach a secure peace with the Palestinians.”
At Monday’s big Jewish gathering, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel addressed an issue that was on the minds of many Jews who were witnessing the inauguration of the first African-American president.
“Now I am confident that maybe my son and my grandson will be here in this city, years from now, maybe celebrating the first Jewish president of the United States,” he said.
Wiesel said he is “convinced (Obama) will bring an end to the tragedy in Darfur; I am convinced he will advance all his talent and energy in bringing peace to the Middle East. He will bring new ideas and old values.”
Finally, what would a modern inauguration be without a smattering of church-state controversy?
The selection of megachurch pastor Rick Warren generated ire among liberals because of his views on homosexuality, but Warren may have created more controversy with a prayer that was the most explicitly Christian ever at an inauguration.
“I expected it to be sectarian,” said the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and president of the Interfaith Alliance, a group that argues for strict church-state separation.
But Gaddy said he was “baffled” by Warren’s inclusion of the Lord’s Prayer in his invocation. “The expectation by any Christian minister is that only followers of Jesus will voice that prayer. So it was not appropriate for a setting that was supposed to be inclusive,” he said. “That left out a lot of people in the crowd.”
ADL chief Abe Foxman said he was “disappointed” by the sectarian tone of Warren’s invocation and called it a “missed opportunity.”
Warren also included in his prayer a “a Biblical verse central to Judaism,” according to leading church-state blogger Howard Friedman (read it here). But Friedman also said Warren’s use of explicitly Christian language went “well beyond the usual half dozen words at the end invoking Jesus.”
But if Warren was overly sectarian, President Obama himself set a new benchmark for religiousness inclusiveness when he included atheists in his inaugural address.
“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness,” he said. “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers.”