The inaugural poem included a “shalom,” and three rabbis and a cantor attended the traditional next-day inaugural blessing. But the message that Jewish Democrats were most eager to convey during President Obama’s second inauguration on Jan. 21 was that the long romance between the community and the party was nowhere near over.
There was no big Jewish Obama inaugural ball this year — overall, celebrations were fewer and less ambitious than in 2009 — but in small discreet parties across Washington this week, Jewish Democrats breathed with relief that their candidate was re-elected and had a substantial majority among Jewish voters.
“It’s easy to forget, as it already seems a long time ago, but despite a profoundly negative campaign aimed at the president in our community, he overwhelmingly won the Jewish vote,” David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said in an interview.
Obama scored 68 percent to 70 percent of the Jewish vote in November’s presidential contest, according to exit polls, a slight decline from the 74 to 78 percent he won in 2008.
Republicans throughout the Obama presidency have made claims of a drift between the Democrats and what for decades has been a core and generous constituency. They have cited in particular Obama’s tense relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; according to a recent report, Obama has said repeatedly that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.”
Yet Obama’s Jewish ties seem as deep as ever.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, emceed the inauguration ceremonies at the Capitol. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who has made a mantra of saying that the Democratic Party is the “natural political home for the Jews,” reassumed her position as Democratic National Committee chair on Jan. 22 at the committee’s winter meeting in Washington, D.C. Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., delivered an invocation at the event.
A few blocks away at the National Cathedral, four Jewish clergy participated in the presidential inaugural prayer service: Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly; Rabbi Sharon Brous, the founder of the IKAR Jewish community in Los Angeles (related story on p. 22); and Cantor Mikhail Manevich of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, a Reform synagogue just blocks from the cathedral.
There were some hiccups: Muslim and Jewish clerics joined their Christian colleagues in a procession headed by ministers bearing aloft a crucifix. Brous substantially changed her prayer reading, which had been drafted by the cathedral, to make it more forthright. A genteel rebuffing of “favoritism” in her prepared text became a rebuke against “biases” in her delivered remarks.
The day before, when Obama fulfilled another time-honored inaugural tradition with a visit to historic St. John’s Church across the street from the White House, Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, and Rabbi Jack Moline, who helms the Conservative Agudas Achim synagogue in Alexandria, Va., delivered readings.
Sixth and I, the historic synagogue in the city’s downtown, drew several hundred to a Shabbat service for government and campaign workers. Wasserman Schultz delivered a sermon, and although she avoided blatant partisanship, she described Democratic policy objectives — among them, access to health care and a reinforced safety net for the poor — as Jewish values.
Otherwise, the Jewish profile was low-key. NJDC, along with J Street, the liberal Jewish group that had made its hallmark the backing of Obama’s Middle East policies, hosted private parties, reflecting the overall subdued festivities. There were only two “official” balls this year, instead of 10, and 800,000 people poured into the capital, a million fewer than four years ago.
A Jewish official said that, similarly, there were fewer Jewish visitors to Washington this year, which likely drove the decision by the major Jewish groups not to repeat the ball at the Capital Hilton. In 2009, hundreds of Jewish Chicagoans were in Washington; this year there was not as much interest.
Instead, many celebrators dedicated themselves to service, in line with a call from the White House for such projects to be timed with Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The District of Columbia Jewish Community Center drew 25 volunteers to help refurbish two apartments for people transitioning from homelessness.
“Volunteering today was meaningful because service is very important to the president, and Martin Luther King is important to him,” said Erica Steen, the director of community engagement for the DCJCC.
J Street brought in 75 activists from across the country to distribute leaflets to passers-by asking them to urge Obama to make Middle East peacemaking a priority.
“Without strong U.S. leadership it won’t be resolved,” said Talia Ben Amy, a 26-year-old assistant editor from New York who was handing out literature near the National Mall.
Eran Sharon, a law graduate from the University of Texas at Austin who is on a fellowship with Jews United for Justice, was helping out at a homeless kitchen after the Sixth and I service. The second inauguration, he said, had brought on more of a sense of relief than exultation.
“It’s a new opportunity to finish the policies Obama has started,” said Sharon, 29. “Hopefully with less bickering with Congress.”