Monday’s 57th Presidential Inauguration officially sent off Barack Obama into a second term as America’s 44th President and the country’s first African American commander-in-chief. After being formally sworn in Sunday at the White House, Obama gave his inaugural address to about one million people Monday, according to a recent White House estimate. This day also coincided with Martin Luther King Day.
In addition to participating in inauguration-weekend activism and service events, members of the Washington D.C. Jewish community shared with JNS.org a variety of views on the President’s reelection and upcoming second term.
In the 1960s Jewish activists, such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, collaborated with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Civil Rights Movement. Nearly half a century later, the Friday before the presidential inauguration, a women’s leadership event, the Women’s Leadership Network luncheon of the National Jewish Democratic Council, kicked off the inaugural weekend in Jewish Washington. The discussion panel included former White House Communications Director Ann Lewis, Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA) and The Jerusalem Post Washington Bureau Chief Hilary Krieger.
It was “one of the most inspirational events I’ve attended in a very long time,” Barbara Goldberg Goldman told JNS.org. “Proud Jewish women of all ages came together to share their desire to perform tikun olam and make a difference in the world in which they live.“
Goldman isn’t worried about Obama’s recent decision to nominate former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) for defense secretary in the president’s second term. Hagel has made controversial statements such as “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people in Congress,” and critics are concerned with his questionable record on Israel.
Hagel’s “record has been distorted and twisted,” she said, and President Obama is “has done more for Israeli defense than any other president,” she said.
As the 57th Presidential inauguration unfolded Jewish U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) spoke of the “American tradition of transferring or re-affirming the immense power of the United States…as an enduring symbol of the American democracy.”
But even among those attending inaugural functions, not all members of the Washington D.C. Jewish community supported the President and his policies. One law student and Republican named Dan, who asked not to reveal his last name, spoke with JNS.org at a special Inaugural Ball organized by the Washington D.C. JCC Monday. He is deeply concerned with the on-going growth of social assistance programs he feels remove individual responsibility and harm the American work ethic. “The drive to succeed will disappear,” he said. But “even if I don't agree, you've got to see democracy in action, and hope that people will stand together to make the country grow,” he added.
Though Obama did not mention Israel in his inaugural address, the President emphasized his administration “will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”
However, just recently Jewish American columnist Jeffrey Goldberg reported Obama has said in private conversations that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are” when it comes to construction beyond the Green Line. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded in an interview that he is “confident that President Obama understands that only a sovereign Israeli government can determine what Israel’s interests are.”
Senior Online Editor of Commentary magazine Jonathan S. Tobin recently wrote that “there are good reasons to believe that tension between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will continue to simmer during their respective terms. The disconnect between the president’s view of the region and the consensus of the overwhelming majority of Israelis about the future of the peace process has created a gap between the two countries that continues to cause trouble. The fact that the two men don’t like each other also doesn’t help.”
Scott Perlo, rabbi and associate director of Jewish programming at the historic Washington, D.C. Synagogue Sixth and I, is also less certain about the President’s second term but optimistic.
“I am conscious of the stratified society and social and economic inequities…Whatever your feelings are about the election, the new president is a vindication of the fact the democratic process works,” Perlo said.
The Sixth and I synagogue’s combined Moorish, Romanesque, and Byzantine-styled building was dedicated in 1908. After the congregation moved to another location, the building became a church, but was returned to the Jewish community in 2000. The building was restored, and now functions not only as a synagogue but also as a venue for lectures and exhibitions.
Inaugural festivities at the historic shul began with a January 16 NPR “Political Junkie Road Show” hosted by Neal Conan and Ken Rudin. “We have people whose perspective tends to be an inside-the-belt-way one. If you were a Jew in America in the 80’s, the presumption was you were a Democrat, but strongly pro-Israel. That demography is changing,” Perlo said.
Leading up to the inauguration Washington’s Jewish community also participated in the National Day of Service Saturday. Erica Steen, Director of Community Engagement at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center (JCC), spent Shabbat afternoon at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service Fair in the National Mall speaking with thousands of participating visitors about the outreach efforts of the Washington Jewish community. Repair the World, a New York City organization dedicated to Jewish community service, also represented the Jewish community at the fair.
Among the beneficiaries of the JCC’s outreach efforts is the Temporary Emergency Residential Resource institute for Families In Crisis (TERRIFIC, Inc.). As part of inaugural weekend activities, more than twenty-five volunteers painted and repaired apartments for homeless families.
“It’s a community weekend,” Steen said, “an opportunity for the nation to come together to celebrate the presidential inauguration, remember Martin Luther King and really give back to the community.”
“Judaism believes strongly in service – a basic critical elements of what makes someone a Jew… a sense of obligation to make the world a better place,” Perlo added.
Gil Steinlauf, Senior Rabbi of Washington’s largest Conservative congregation Adas Israel, said “it is a great honor to be attending the inauguration, representing one of the oldest congregations in the District – truly a joy and a celebration.” Both American Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, and Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, attend the synagogue, he said.
Steinlauf believes Obama’s selection of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, “is of concern” and “attention must be paid.” Although he is optimistic about “the United States’ continued support for Israel” and does not think we will see “some of the alarmist situations that some in the Jewish community fear,” he said, “the President will pose certain challenges,” Steinlauf agreed.