Jewish Democrats low key, grateful at second inauguration

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.”

Obama’s Black-Jewish Pledge

Barack Obama’s pledge to use his presidency to revive the black-Jewish alliance starts on Day (minus) One — the day before he becomes president.

The president-elect’s inaugural committee has asked Jewish groups to make black-Jewish dialogue and joint outreach to the poor a focus of Martin Luther King Day commemorations on Jan. 19. Renewing the classic civil rights alliance is part of the inauguration’s “big picture,” a senior inauguration official said.

The emphasis comes after a bruising campaign in which Jewish voters were targeted by anonymous campaigns attempting to depict Obama as a secret Muslim, as well as conservatives who questioned the candidate’s pro-Israel bona fides. It also comes after decades of mistrust fueled by disagreements over affirmative action, Israel’s relationship with South Africa and outright expressions of hostility from prominent black figures, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan.

Obama, who has strong ties with influential members of the Chicago Jewish community, made clear during the campaign that the alliance, which helped bring about civil rights changes in the 1960s, was a central focus of his Jewish outreach.

Invoking this alliance was a linchpin of his speech in May to thousands of members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where references to domestic policy often fall flat. Not so with Obama: The Washington convention center filled with cheers when he invoked the memories of the three civil rights volunteers — two Jews and an African American — who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964.

“In the great social movements in our country’s history, Jewish and African Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder,” Obama said. “They took buses down South together. They marched together. They bled together. And Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were willing to die alongside a black man — James Chaney — on behalf of freedom and equality.”

A few months earlier, during a speech at last year’s commemoration of the King holiday at the slain civil rights leader’s church in Atlanta, Obama criticized anti-immigrant and anti-gay sentiment in some corners of the black community. He also lamented that the “scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community.”

Throughout his campaign, Obama made his desire to bridge the divide a focus of his talks with Jewish leaders, said Deborah Lauter, the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) national civil rights director.

“When Abe met with Obama, Obama conveyed to him he would like to see the historic black-Jewish roots renewed,” Lauter said, referring to Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director.

Lauter said Obama’s commitment might help spur an alliance that has faltered in recent years. Charged with reviewing what ADL chapters had planned for Martin Luther King Day, she noticed that plans for events bringing blacks and Jews together had decreased.

“There are some pockets of activity, but they’re not what they used to be,” Lauter said. “The ones that exist work well, but it hasn’t been a priority.”

In recent weeks, however, Lauter said she noticed an enthusiasm for re-establishing the alliance. Obama’s 78 percent support among Jewish voters — higher than expected — was pivotal.

“The numbers were so strong in terms of the Jewish vote for Obama,” she said. “There’s a spirit of renewal, looking for opportunities to renew old ties and look forward generally.”

Rumors of the demise of the alliance are overstated, said Rabbi Marc Schneier, who co-founded the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding with hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons. The tensions stoked by the radical inclinations of an older generation had been replaced by the outreach favored by younger blacks, including Obama.

“Crown Heights was the lowest point,” he said, referring to the lethal 1991 riots in Brooklyn, “but since those difficult and trying days, there has been a cadre of African American and Jewish leaders dedicated to repairing and restoring the relationship.”

Schneier said he likes to tease Eleanor Tatum, publisher of the Amsterdam News, an African American weekly, that he sees more ads in Jewish papers for Martin Luther King Day activities than he does in hers.

Rabbi David Saperstein, who as the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center is a leader of national Jewish outreach to other civil rights and minority groups, said the relationship is thriving — in the leadership.

“The reality is day in, day out, blacks and Jews are working together for education, to help the poor,” he said. In the U.S. Congress, “the Black Caucus is overwhelmingly pro-Israel; the Jewish Caucus has been overwhelmingly supportive not just on civil rights but on aid for sub-Saharan Africa.”

It needs to trickle down, Saperstein said.

“There’s too little social interaction,” said the rabbi, who delivered the invocation the night Obama accepted the presidential nomination in August. “We can develop more opportunities for youth groups to work together on common projects. It is the building of levels of trust and personal connection that helps us through tough times.”

Using Internet outreach, the ADL is asking its activists and others to take the Martin Luther King Day service pledge.

“By signing this pledge, I recognize that respect for individual dignity, achieving equality and opposing anti-Semitism, racism, ethnic bigotry, homophobia or any other form of hatred is a nonnegotiable responsibility of all people,” it concludes.

An array of national and local Jewish groups have signed up with the inaugural committee’s black-Jewish outreach.

In Washington, Jews attending inaugural festivities also will be asked to join the Washington Hebrew Congregation’s “work day” on Jan. 19, helping the homeless.

“If you’re a Jewish person coming to Washington for the inauguration, you’ll see that — but you’ll also see homeless shelters and soup kitchens,” said the senior inauguration official, who spoke on the transition team’s strict condition of anonymity.

Other programs are more lighthearted.

The Greater Washington Jewish Community Relations Council is marking the King Day evening with the Black-Jewish Dialogues, which is described as “a hilarious two-actor, multimedia romp of sketches, theater and video that reveals the absurdity of prejudice and hate within the context of the American black-Jew experience.”

Schneier insisted such activities were not out of the ordinary — “we’re close to the heyday of the black-Jewish relations” — but he said it was thrilling in recent weeks to see the alliance at its most rarefied level.

“When I saw Rahm Emanuel appointed White House chief of staff,” he said, “I saw the black-Jewish alliance at work again trying to restore this country.”