"Can you imagine?" he asked the rabbi. "We've lived to see a black man elected president."
Well, not quite yet at that moment. But by the time the polls closed at 8 p.m., the Auschwitz survivor's claim would come true. Barack Obama's campaign for the presidency would end in a landslide.
As emotional as the election of the United States' first black president was for African Americans, Obama's ascendancy was overwhelming for many Jews too, even among those far too young to have witnessed the role Jews played in the civil rights movement. Even among those too young to vote.
"Let us in! Let us in!" Gabriel Rosenstein, 17, chanted with the crowd waiting outside Century Plaza Hotel & Spa in Century City, where the Obama campaign was holding its Los Angeles victory celebration.
Rosenstein and the friends who had joined him -- Jesse Allis and Ben Perkins, both 17 -- had phone-banked against Proposition 8 at their temple and for Obama at Morgan Freeman's office.
"This is a historic election, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of something like this," Rosenstein said. "I didn't want to let that pass by."
For months there was constant talk about Obama's Jewish problem, a lingering fear -- with plenty of empirical evidence -- that an unusually high proportion of Democratic Jews were going to vote for McCain. But in the end it didn't bear out. An early exit poll from CNN concluded that Obama received 78 percent of the Jewish vote.
"I was so on the fence the whole time," Josh Horowatt, 29, said after voting at Temple Beth Am. "I had strong opinions both ways. I feel like it's been eight years of Republicans in office; it's time for a change. On the other hand, I still have more conservative values, so that is a plus for McCain. But on the other hand I figured let's give Obama a chance, let's give the Democrats a chance to see what they can do."
It's unclear exactly what caused Obama's support among Jewish voters to swell from a relatively abysmal 57 percent in a September poll by the American Jewish Committee. What is clear is, in the end, Obama fared better than John Kerry did in 2004, and almost as well as Al Gore, whose running mate was Sen. Joe Lieberman, in 2000.
"The Jewish community was kind of in a dance with Obama," said Steven Windmueller, dean of the L.A. campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. "This took some time, whether it was Sarah Palin, whether it was the negative campaigning or whether it was the economy -- it is so hard to know the particulars, but clearly something drove the voters back to their home base."
Mel Levine had expected this much, and since the spring, the former L.A. congressman and Obama adviser on the Middle East had tried convincing journalists and Jewish players of the same. He began watching the election returns at 3:30 p.m., opting for the quiet of his home and companionship of his wife and dog.
"I fully expected this to be over the second the California polls closed. But I still found myself overcome by emotion," Levine said. "I can't find the words to express how thrilled I am for the country to get this new direction. And to see the faces and watch the reactions of people around the country was quite overwhelming to me."
Thousands turned out at the Century Plaza Hotel to share in the celebration. Obama's press people said the party would begin at 8 p.m., but the Los Angeles Ballroom was full two hours before. I heard Sens. Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein were there, but had no way of confirming.
The place was a mob scene, complete with fans weeping like those who used to greet The Beatles. The lobby was teeming with thousands hoping to somehow get downstairs; thousands more waited outside in a line that snaked down Avenue of the Stars and Constellation Boulevard.
"Look around: It's amazing the amount of excitement," said Dmitry Kmelnitsky, 35. "Change -- the country needs something new and needs to be re-energized. Sometimes you have to start with a clean slate. You want to believe he can change things."
The crowd erupted when, at 8 p.m., just before the party officially began, CNN declared the Democratic candidate the winner.
Twenty minutes later, John McCain conceded. A campaign that had dragged on for nearly two years, that had drawn more excitement and anticipation than any election in 40 years, was over before the last voters in line in California had even cast their ballots.
At Barney's Beanery in Santa Monica, where members of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), had gathered for a low-key election viewing, there was no partying.
"The comeback begins," Greenfield wrote in an e-mail minutes before midnight. "Jimmy Carter led to Ronald Reagan. Obama nanny government and weakness in global affairs has been promised. I am confident we will return to the American Way soon enough. And Jewish Republicanism will continue to grow."
Maybe. But this night belonged to Obama. And when he took the stage to give his acceptance speech, emotion poured out of people who had waited so long for this.
"That's our president. That's our president!" a black woman behind me screamed.
"Our president," a young Jew beside me added.
Jewish Journal Education Editor Julie Gruenbaum Fax contributed to this report.
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