They walked in like so many other Shabbat guests we have had the pleasure of hosting. Our home in Jerusalem, before the coronavirus, was always buzzing with great Shabbat conversations, from our local friends and also interesting folks from usually the US or Africa. Our favorites are African dignitaries and the progressive groups that come through the non-profit educational arm of AIPAC, since that way my wife, Rabbi Susan Silverman, is free to throw her sharp zingers at right-wing leaders and policies on both sides of the ocean. She does so in a loving Zionist context, and with humor, and, often, outside of any playbook.
Years ago, after a wonderful Shabbat dinner with a group, Susan pulled the staff member aside and asked that next time Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor comes to Jerusalem, she would like to host him.
“Okay, great,” said the staffer. “How come?”
“Because I want to kick his ass!” answered the good rabbi.
We noticed a drastic reduction in bi-partisan and Republican guests at our Shabbat table after that. I’d like the bipartisan mix more, but this way I am not on edge that the famous Silverman wit will unnerve a guest.
While we have hosted many members of Congress, Kamala Harris was going to be our first senator. This was a private trip, we were told, so that Doug, her Jewish husband, could finally see the Jewish state and also experience a special Shabbat. No one had to tell us the significance; there were already whispers of a presidential campaign.
Unbeknownst to us, the senator had asked her staff to seek out a Shabbat dinner that would resonate for Doug, and they presented six families. I think we won the privilege because the Israel that Senator Harris loves, and the Judaism she most identifies with, is our Israel and our Judaism — filled with good people challenging its imperfections and fighting to lift human dignity wherever we can.
They landed Friday late afternoon, changed at the hotel, and showed up with two staffers, one really good friend — Dr. Anita Friedman — and bearing warm smiles and a gift. One of the staffers, Halie Soifer, Harris’s then-national security adviser, now heads the Jewish Democratic Council of America. We had some guests of our own, including Yotam Polizer and his wife from IsraAID, and Saul and Wendy Singer, of Start-Up Nation fame. And four of our kids, including Adar, who had just come home for Shabbat from the Israel Defense Forces as a tank commander and sharpshooter.
On the one hand, there is nothing remarkable about our Shabbatot. Candlelighting, angel cards, kiddush, blessing the kids, motzi. But Kamala wanted something special. She lit the candles with Susan, waved in the flickering lights and whispered the blessing together. These were the candlesticks that Susan’s grandmother had brought out of the pogroms of Poland to America, and she shared the story, and how remarkable it is to light them in a sovereign Jewish state.
Kamala sat across from Susan; Doug across from me and everyone else was spread out. Doug’s big love for Kamala radiated, as they held hands or caught each other’s gaze. I don’t remember which angel cards they drew, but the cards are great conversation-starters. Angels like Blessing, Health, Compassion, Courage, Play, Transformation, Wisdom and more set the spiritual stage each week.
Susan explained each of the rituals, and the two guests were most taken by her linking in the kiddush of the creation story with the exodus from Egypt. “The purpose of creation, as I understand it, is redemption. For Jews and for all people.” Ashira, then 14, blessed the challah and, as is our tradition, tossed a piece to each guest to remind us that ultimately all bounty comes from Heaven.
Kamala brought up solar energy and climate change. I was happy to tell her about our goal of going 100% solar daytime for Eilat and the Arava Desert – which we achieved this year! – and how we are bringing that model to African countries with US government advocacy and financing. This is the good stuff. We did not talk about settlements or other wedge issues on Israel. But rather how the US and Israel can work together to further international development and win the climate battle. “We have a lot to learn from you,” said the junior senator from California. “Actually,” I responded, “the first commercial solar field in the world was an Israeli company that built in the Mojave Desert and California is ahead on renewables targets and storage.” I proposed allowing solar companies in Israel or in Africa to be able to sell our carbon credits on the California carbon market, which she thought would be a good way of implementing the memorandum of understanding (MOU) that was in place between California and Israel.
Wine, salatim (Israeli salads and spreads), more discussion, this time on foster care. Susan runs Second Nurture, a non-profit actually based in Los Angeles that promotes the culture of adoption and fostering in communities. Kamala loved the model, knew all the stats and figures about the needs in LA, and appreciated innovation coming out of Israel that is improving the lives of vulnerable kids in LA. Hallel, then 22, told of her and Susan’s arrest at the Kotel for praying with a tallit and how it set off a global political and religious storm of pluralists vs. fundamentalists in Jewish life.
On foster care, the relief work of IsraAID, feminism, and our programs in Israel and Africa on solar energy, she turned to Doug each time with the look that seemed to say, “See, I told you, your people and traditions are really cool.” They are essentially a Tikkun Olam interfaith family. Since Adar was introduced as a soldier, she also gave Doug a short tutorial on Hamas rockets that terrorize the residents of Sderot.
There was plenty of salmon, lasagna and non-wonky talk as well: kids, traditions, culture. Doug’s kids love independent movies and music and he was looking for recommendations.
When you host an intimate Shabbat dinner, you expand your sense of family. Kamala waited until dessert to share her Israel-related mission. She leaned forward toward Susan. “My goal is to hold together the center on Israel in the Democratic Party,” said the now-contender for the vice presidency of the United States. She said it with conviction, authenticity and, in that moment, as a related-Member of the Tribe around the Shabbat table in Jerusalem.
When you walk into the front reception of Kamala Harris’s Senate office, there is a framed photograph with the caption, “Shabbat in Israel 2017” with a group picture from our home. I don’t think the Naval Observatory (where the US vice president lives) has hosted Shabbat dinners or Passover seders before. But if they do, we’ll bring the angel cards from Jerusalem.
Yosef Israel Abramowitz, named by CNN as one of the planet’s leading Green Pioneers, plays second fiddle to Rabbi Susan Silverman at Shabbat dinners in Jerusalem. Yossi can be followed @Kaptainsunshine. A shorter version of this article originally appeared in the Forward.