Alan Silverstein

Tribute to a Historic Jewish-American Figure – Sen. Joseph Lieberman

Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Rabbi Alan Silverstein (1995).
Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Rabbi Alan Silverstein (1995).

The recent, tragic passing of Sen. Joseph Lieberman leaves a void in Jewish advocacy. As recently as mid-March, the Senator published a column criticizing Chuck Schumer’s interference in the Israeli election process. Then, at the very end of his days, Lieberman joined with Alan Dershowitz in a “Wall Street Journal” op-ed on behalf of Israel’s war of self-defense. The message served as a warning to Joe Biden’s 2024 campaign not to take Jewish votes for granted.

Lieberman stated, “We are here to say that you can no longer simply count on our vote just because Jews traditionally have voted Democratic. We are here to say you must earn our vote. We want to continue to support Democratic candidates. But you need to know that if you abandon Israel [notably in terms of the resupply of weapons] in order to garner the support of anti-Israel extremists within the Democratic Party, it will be difficult for us to support Democrats who are on the ballot this November.”

Lieberman’s D.C. legacy is larger than his most recent public posting. His influence stretches back to his initial Senate election in 1988. The highlight was his historic campaign for Vice President in 2000. Some reflections are in order.

A Jewish Jackie Robinson

In the early summer of 2000, I discussed with my then 21-year-old son that Joseph Lieberman was on the shortlist to be Al Gore’s Vice Presidential partner. When it happened, we felt sheer and utter amazement and joy.

Press accounts noted, “While it is not surprising that Jews would be happy about the choice, the level of emotion comes as a shock.”

“New York Magazine” reported: “Emotions simply spilled out. Some people cried. Others had a hard time sleeping. Even secular Jews who don’t usually give their religious identity much thought gushed about… the special historical significance of this moment.”

As a congregational rabbi, my phone was abuzz: “Rabbi, turn on the television. Listen to Joe Lieberman’s official acceptance of Al Gore’s invitation. It is historic!” Rabbi David Saperstein, director emeritus of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism exuded, “My own 10-year-old said it was like Jackie Robinson.”

Joe’s words of acceptance touched our souls: “I cannot express with words the gratitude that I feel in my heart today as the first Jewish-American to be honored to be a major party candidate for the vice presidency of this blessed United States of America.”

Having been named after her grandmother who was murdered in Auschwitz, Joe’s wife Hadassah’s comments were poignant: “Here I am in this place that commemorates WWII veterans. Here I am the daughter of survivors from the Holocaust… Here I am in the place that commemorates American heroes, the soldiers who liberated my family in Dachau and in Auschwitz.”

Hadassah felt the presence of “All the souls of the Holocaust martyrs. They were all standing behind her. They were imbuing her with a profound sense of the change of Jewish fortune. They gave her a feeling about the opportunities that lie ahead despite the horrors of the past.” Her response was a reminder of her comment in 1988 after Joe’s election to the Senate. Receiving their initial tour of the Senate chambers, Joe asked what she was thinking. Hadassah replied with quiet resolve, “I’m raising my fist in the air in defiance to Hitler! SEE, we survived!!!”

Lieberman Broke Through the Glass Ceiling

During the Democratic National Convention in August of 2000, Joe vowed, “That the time has come to tear down the remaining walls of discrimination in this nation… I believe that the next frontier isn’t just in front of us, but inside of us, to overcome the differences that are still between us, to break down the barriers that remain, and to help every American claim the limitless possibilities of their own lives.”

An editorial appeared in “The New Republic”: “A Jew for VP! You could hear almost the entire country gasp… It was a beautiful gasp… greeted by almost nothing but delight… For it confirmed the existence of a climate of decency in America… The U.S. doesn’t tolerate minorities, it welcomes them…”

In a representative comment, Rabbi Michael Feshbach spoke for his colleagues: “Previously I had never regarded this glass ceiling as a barrier. I had never given much thought to it. But today I feel light-headed and amazed. I feel the oppressive weight of that barrier’s absence, now that it is so suddenly and surprisingly gone.”

Anti-Semitism Was Partially Put in its Place

Joe Lieberman commented, “I am sure there are some anti-Semites out there. But you know, this people, the American people, are so tolerant, they’re so open, I’m convinced they’re going to vote for me or against me not based on my religion, but based on how they judge me as a person and whether they think I can do this job, and I can’t ask any more than that.”

Anti-Semitic attitudes still exist but anti-Semitic feelings which affect government policy against Jews have vanished forever. Polls of Americans asked in 2000 about their attitudes toward Jews in national life revealed a dramatic increase in the number of citizens who said they would vote for a Jew as president. Contrary to initial fears about a Jew on the ticket, Joe Lieberman’s presence helped Al Gore. They came within some Florida “hanging chads” of gaining the White House.

Executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Malcolm Honlein reflected that,  “This is an important message to all young Americans; that anyone of hard work and integrity can answer the call to public service, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or race.”

Hadassah Lieberman added, “Whether you and your family immigrated from Europe, Africa, Mexico, Latin America, or Asia, I am standing here for you. This country is our country. This land is your land, and anything is possible for us.”

The Status of Jews in Public Life in America was Forever Altered

Barry Goldwater, son of a Jewish man and a Protestant woman, and raised as a Christian, ran for President in 1964. Comedian Harry Golden quipped,  “I always knew that the first Jewish President would be an Episcopalian.”

Most American minorities had assumed that success in national political life requires the blurring of one’s public ethnic particularities. Yet Rabbi Harold Schulweis commented, “With the nomination of Lieberman — who is Shomer Shabbat, studies Torah daily, prays three times a day — we see a new world emerging. We can be both Jews at home and Jews in the street.” Jews in public life should never again be apprehensive about acknowledging their Jewishness.

Joe Lieberman realized, “Being observant has not impeded me, but actually has opened up additional linkages in society-at-large… I’ve found that my religious observance, and my reading of the Bible, has created a bond with people.”

Pre-eminent Jewish-American historian Jonathan Sarna judged that “Lieberman’s candidacy strengthens the hand of those who insist that in America, Jews can have it all; their Jewish faith and rituals, their secular habits and culture, and the security of knowing that today, unlike in the past, they need not abandon one for the other in order to rise to the highest positions in the land.”

When questioned about his commitment to Israel, Senator Lieberman pointed out that he had no “dual loyalty” problem. His response was reminiscent of that of Louis Brandeis when nominated to the Supreme Court by Woodrow Wilson: “Dual loyalty, yes. It’s like the fact that I love my wife and I love my mother.”

Religious Living Can Impact Upon a Person’s Morality

In the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Al Gore was attracted to Lieberman as a paragon of morality. He was regarded as the “moral conscience of the Senate.” Why? He was a mentsch. He had a warm sense of humor. He was down-to-earth rather than pompous. He was serious but did not take himself too seriously. On a late-night talk show, Joe was asked for light-hearted alternative campaign slogans indicative of his Jewish background. The Senator retorted, “With malice toward none, but with a little guilt for everyone.”

As President of the Rabbinical Assembly, I had the good fortune of conversing with the Senator at an event back in 1995 (pictured above). My experience coincided with everything we had heard about him.

Long-time politico Bob Abrams stated, “I’ve been around the political scene for 35 years and I’ve never seen anything like this — where a person surfaces as a candidate and not a single person has a bad word to say about him”

Lieberman’s book entitled, “In Praise of Public Life,” described public service in religious language as a noble calling. It was in pursuit of Tikkun Olam! Joe Lieberman embodied the confidence that “Formal religion does make one a better person. Ritual and morals are all tied up together.”

An Adult Education Experience

Joe Lieberman’s 1988 underdog victory over Lowell Weicker for Senate in part attributed to Lieberman’s refusal to campaign on Shabbat. Voters felt reassured that there were certain things more important to him than his political advancement. There were principles he would not trample upon in the pursuit of power.

“The New Republic’s Washington Diarist” expressed that, “The story is taking its place — alongside Johnny Appleseed’s ramblings and Lincoln’s treks to borrow a book — in American lore. It’s Friday evening, the Jewish Sabbath is beginning, and Joe Lieberman begins his long walk home to his Georgetown residence.”

Richard Cohen added in “The Washington Post”: “Joe Lieberman hiked 5 miles [to home] in the bitter cold… He could have driven, No one would have known. He could have walked a few blocks and then hailed a cab, no one would have known. I suspect that he walked all the way, because he knows, unlike most politicians we have seen, that selling out, like a long walk home, begins with a single step.”

Through Joe, the American public received an education in what Judaism is all about and how a serious, committed Jew wrestles with his tradition in a modern world. As one commentator observed, “Joe Lieberman’s life is becoming the greatest adult education class in American Jewish history.”

Yehi zichra baruchMay his memory remain as a source of blessing!

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”
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