Even if the speech itself is boring — and let’s face it, most State of the Union addresses aren’t particularly compelling oratorical exercises, no matter which side of the aisle the speaker and the listener come from — it seems clear that being in that room during the speech must be thrilling.
Yes it is, Rabbi Ethan Prosnit of Temple Emanu-El of Westfield said. Yes, it offers a unique, electric excitement. “It was awesome,” he said.
Rabbi Prosnit was at the State of the Union speech last week, sitting in the visitors’ gallery at the House of Representatives in Washington, listening to President Joe Biden. He was there as the guest of his congressional representative, Thomas Kean Jr., the newly seated Republican from New Jersey’s 7th District.
Not only was it particularly meaningful for him because of his ordination, from Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Prosnit said, although his movement’s emphasis on social justice and civic engagement gives even more depth to his visit to the Capitol. He got even another frisson because he had another career — yes, a short one, but still — as a high-school history and civics teacher in a public school in Worcester, Mass. (Both his undergraduate degree and his master’s, in teaching, come from Clark University, also in Worcester.)
“When I taught, I always gave extra credit to the kids who watched the State of the Union,” he said.
He’s known Mr. Kean for some time. “I live in Westfield, and he lives about a minute walk from the synagogue, so I’ve had some interactions with him before,” he said. “He called me and asked me to be his guest — every member of Congress gets one guest — and of course I said yes. I said, ‘Thank you for the honor.’
“I was a little surprised by the phone call,” he added; the call came the Thursday before the speech, which was on Tuesday, February 7.
Why was he, of all possible guests, invited? “I think that he wants to develop a relationship with Jewish leaders — with all faith leaders — and with the rise in antisemitism, which is always concerning, he wants to know what he and the government can do to make sure that antisemitism and other hate speech is not tolerated,” Rabbi Prosnit said.
Rabbi Prosnit maintained a purely nonpartisan position as he talked about his invitation, but to give some context to it — context that the apolitical Rabbi Prosnit absolutely did not give — District 7 was redistricted to make it far more purple than it had been until the last election. Boundaries were shifted to move Democratic voters out of the district, putting them where they could shore up other Democratic representatives, and Republican voters were moved in. Representative Tom Malinowski, who had held the seat, lost narrowly to Mr. Kean, who was widely seen as moving to the right and embracing former president Donald J. Trump more closely than he had two years before, when he’d run and lost to Mr. Malinowski for the same seat. So it made good political sense for Mr. Kean to invite a rabbi.
But there were other reasons as well for Mr. Kean to have chosen Rabbi Prosnit, and it was those reasons that Rabbi Prosnit discussed.
So, with the invitation accepted, Rabbi Prosnit took the train down to Washington.
“I got there at about 5 o’clock, and I went to the congressman’s office and we talked there for about an hour,” Rabbi Prosnit said. “It was mainly about his transition into the office, what he’s working on now, and what I care about most. Then we walked over to a reception at the Library of Congress.
“I saw Washington’s State of the Union speech — the document, it’s there — and I saw Abraham Lincoln’s, and I saw a letter from Hamilton, his goodbye to Washington. Then we walked to the Capitol.
“The cool part is that he has access to everywhere. I’ve toured the Capitol before, and I’ve been able to go in some of the tunnels, but he can go everywhere! Into all of them!
“Then we went to Speaker McCarthy’s office for another reception.”
The reception in Kevin McCarthy’s office was for Republicans only; the one in the Library was bipartisan, Rabbi Prosnit said.
Each member of Congress is allotted one ticket, for one guest, for the speech, but can bring more than one guest to the reception. Mr. Kean’s wife, Rhonda, was at the receptions; then she went to her husband’s office for the speech, Rabbi Prosnit said.
When they got to the House, Rabbi Prosnit and Mr. Kean parted — the congressman went to the floor, the rabbi to the gallery. Seats are given out according to the member’s seniority, and because Mr. Kean is a freshman, “it was in the nosebleed section,” Rabbi Prosnit said. There is a distinct disadvantage to being in the room — the acoustics aren’t particularly good — so he couldn’t hear as clearly as he would have had he been watching television, Rabbi Prosnit said. But the tradeoff was well worth it.
“I sat next to very interesting people,” he said. “And we talked. I sat next to the husband of a newly elected congresswoman from North Carolina, and a retired emergency room nurse from the northern suburbs of Atlanta, and close to the fiancée of someone who was killed recently by the L.A. police.
“That’s the beauty of it, the wide range of people you meet.”
He thinks, although he cannot be sure, that he was the only rabbi in the room. Although he looked, and although he couldn’t see everyone in the crowd, he saw no one other than him wearing a kippah, although he did meet a Protestant minister.
As he told his congregation in his next sermon, “How often do we sit next to people who don’t have their phones with them?” (Visitors had to surrender their phones, and then stand on line after the speech to retrieve them.) “You get there early and wait for the president to speak, so you have really deep conversations.
“Being in the room was special,” he concluded. “The rituals of the speech are impressive. It was holy.”
Sitting where he did, hearing what he could hear, “I thought that the speech was powerful,” he said. “I thought that there were opportunities for unity, where we could bring people together.” He heard some of the heckling, too. “Unfortunately, it showed the polarization of our government,” he said.
Rabbi Prosnit’s brother lives in D.C.; once the speech was over and his phone was back in his pocket, he said goodbye to Mr. Kean and went to his brother’s house for the night. The next day, he took the train back home.
He looks back at his experience with some awe.
“I always say, and I really believe, that as a rabbi part of my duty is to be sure that we are citizens of the world, and to make sure that we have a strong moral voice,” Rabbi Prosnit said. “We do so in the halls of Congress, and also in our home communities. So for me, being at the State of the Union, being in Congress, where the laws of our country are created, was really powerful.
“We can’t just watch. We have to be an active part of it as well. These are our elected officials, but we have a voice too. How can we continue to use that voice?”