Only in America

Only in America

It is likely that the most important part of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, which convened just outside Washington, D.C., earlier this week, was Vice President Joe Biden’s speech.

By now, Mr. Biden is so given to shtick that at times he seems like a caricatured version of himself. He knows he’s cute – and that’s odd for the vice president of the United States. But – and more importantly – he also made news – sorely needed good news – by pledging the United States’ undying commitment to Israel. Not only does Israel need the United States, but the United States also needs Israel, he said. In fact, the mutual need is so great that if Israel had not existed, we Americans would have had to have created it, he added.

His own personal commitment to fighting anti-Semitism and to Zionism came from his father and was nurtured by his family throughout his childhood, he said, and he has done the same for his children and now his grandchildren.

And President Obama never will let Iran create nuclear weapons he said. In fact, he roared that message. Occasionally he moved from a near monotone to a bellow as he spoke. That he bellowed, and the crowd roared back.

Mr. Biden also charmed. He told a story of having met with Golda Meir when he was a very young senator and she a grizzled prime minister. After their meeting, he said, as they stood together for a photo shoot, she stared straight ahead, as per convention in such situations, and told him, out of the corner of her mouth, why, despite its problems, Israel would survive. “The secret,” she said, “is that we don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Of course, we have to hope that the promises the vice president makes to a huge room full of Jews are promises that the president will keep in other venues, but at least the start was good.

Mr. Biden was sporadically charming. But in an earlier session, Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan were interviewed by NPR’s legal correspondent, Nina Totenberg, and all three were endlessly charming. (Were we playing a word-association game, “Supreme Court justices” would not likely lead immediately to “charming.”)

All are Jewish, although only Ms. Kagan addressed that issue in any depth. She talked about becoming bat mitzvah at Lincoln Square Synagogue, then as now modern Orthodox. She firmly believed, she said, that her older brother was the model in all things. Whatever he did, she did. He became bar mitzvah, so…

Lincoln Square did not allow young girl to become bat mitzvah at services, but her rabbi, the then-young Steven Riskin (now the eminent Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat), was creative in his solution to the problem, she said. Elana Kagan read haftarah at shul on Friday night. It is easy to imagine that even then, Ms. Kagan was a formidable presence.

Mr. Breyer was more reserved, with the affect of a flinty New Englander. (He said that when he is recognized, he often is confused with the retired Justice David Souter, a genuine flinty New Englander.) He told a story of being asked what he felt about being one of three Jews on the court. “It’s fine,” he said.

Yes, it is fine.

And Nina Totenberg was a delight as well. It is odd to see someone projected on a big screen, sitting on a stage in front of you, wearing killer red high heels, looking entirely unfamiliar and absolutely unlike her voice, as her entirely familiar voice fills the room.

There were many issues of substance broached during the plenums, and many appeals to the heart. Participants heard from news analysts Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell, actress Marlee Matlin, and Great Britain’s former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. They heard from the brother of Hadar Goldin, the Israeli soldier presumed kidnapped and later discovered dead this summer, who himself is a soldier, and from a young woman, an IDF medic who had just finished her service and was in South America when the war ended and she cut short her vacation to volunteer. She described how it feels to tend to wounded soldiers in the dark; you have to substitute touch for sight, she said. But that was her unit, and those were her friends, and her place was with them, no matter what.

We heard from Jews who had made aliyah from France as well as from Russia, and a Jew who still proudly lives in India. We heard from a woman who survived the Holocaust and one whose family returned to their kibbutz despite the sirens and the Iron Dome hits and the tunnels discovered beneath their feet in the war’s aftermath.

There were older people in the vast room that housed the plenums, but there were many young ones as well. Hillel sent many students – the largest group was from Michigan – and the federations’ delegations seemed to be multigenerational. The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey had a healthy-sized delegation. We have a very active federation – an accurate reflection of our Jewish community – and both its lay leaders and its staff are passionate about its work and its connection to the larger Jewish people.

Despite the bad news that has headed our way with missile-like malice since last spring, we left the giant meeting filled with hope. It is extraordinarily energizing to be in a space as big as the giant room in the gargantuan hotel and conference center in National Harbor, Md., just outside Washington – a fairyland, with twinkling lights and a huge Ferris wheel visible outside the massive windows and fake snow that falls every evening – a space filled with excited, exciting, loud, proud Jews. – JP

For more coverage of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, see pages 39 and 40.