Seeing the president of the United States give a Torah sermon was quite the treat for this Jewish journalist’s 20th birthday. It’s an unusual sight to say the least.
President Barack Obama knew exactly what to say when he addressed the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial on Friday. After all, there’s a resident expert on Judaism in the Obama family.
“Since my daughter Malia has reached the age where it seems like there’s always a Bar or Bat Mitzvah every weekend … As a consequence, she’s become the family expert on Jewish tradition,” Obama cracked.
Obama took Malia’s advice and gave a d’var-torah-turned-stump-speech revolving around the word “Hineini,” saying, like Joseph, that he’s ready to take on challenges even if he can’t predict them all.
And boy, he was definitely “there.”
Obama garnered no less than 71 rounds of applause and plenty of standing ovations for defending his record on Israel.
“In fact, I am proud to say that no U.S. administration has done more in support of Israel’s security than ours. None,” Obama said. “Don’t let anybody else tell you otherwise. It is a fact.”
Obama rattled off a litany of his accomplishments as president, not just in regards to Israel (military aid, missile defense, support at international organizations during the Palestinian statehood bid, dispatching firefighting planes to stop fires in Israel, aiding besieged Israeli embassy in Cairo), but also in advancing liberal causes such as health care access, LGBT rights, women’s rights and economic justice.
“America’s commitment and my commitment to Israel and Israel’s security is unshakeable. It is unshakeable,” he said.
But Obama had his praises for the Jews in the room, too, making sure to congratulate the Religious Action Center on their golden anniversary and thank them on a personal level for their commitment to the Civil Rights Movement.
“You helped draft the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. You helped to liberate Soviet Jews. You have made a difference on so many of the defining issues of the last half-century,” he said. “And without these efforts, I probably wouldn’t be standing here today. So thank you. Thank you.”
Obama ended his speech promising to continue that fight and answer the promise of “Hineini,” alluding to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous commitment to social justice through protest.
“I promise you that as you pray with your feet, I will be right there with you every step of the way.”
But wait, we’re a college/youth oriented news outlet…hmmm…let’s see…Oh yeah: Obama loves NFTY. He gave them a shout-out, prompting all 200 plus to jump up in sheer exultation.
“Young people are going to lead the way, and they’re leading the way. There you go. I’m fired up just listening to them,” he said.
Obama sure knew his audience. He even followed the age old Jewish tradition of arriving late. He kept musician Josh Nelson on stage stalling for more than 20 minutes. Don’t believe me? See the delay and the speech for yourself.