Yes, I was in the same room with President Barack Obama. No, it was not a private audience. Some five thousand other Reform Jews from around the country were also present. We were gathered in Washington last month for the Biennial Conference of the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) and the Golden anniversary of our Religious Action Center (RAC) in the nation’s capital. [see our previous post, Obama at the URJ]
Fifty years ago President Kennedy had attended the dedication of the RAC. There is a famous picture of the President receiving a Torah. One of the leaders of our movement who was present at that moment five decades ago recalled that Kennedy had been given a kippah (yarmulke) by future Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg for the occasion, but declined to wear it. When asked why after the ceremony, he retorted without missing a beat: “Because I am a Reform Jew!”
President Obama spoke of Reform Judaism’s commitment to social justice, recalling how drafts of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were written at the RAC. He went on to describe how Jews marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and played a great role in the civil rights movement. At one point he said that if not for the work of Reform Jews in alliance with other pioneers, “I would not be standing here today.”
The President of the United States revealed that his older daughter is attending bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies seemingly every week, and that discussions were being held in the Obama family about the appropriate attire for synagogue and how late to stay out at the parties. Only in America!
And only in America would the President pepper his speech with the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, well aware that this phrase, meaning repair the world, is used to signify our commitment to social justice. The President also spoke of the weekly Torah portion and referenced the crucial phrase hineni, here I am, which is used repeatedly in the Torah when a person steps forward to accept a responsibility.
After a remarkably warm and personal introduction the President continued, as expected, with a spirited defense of his accomplishments, and sounded some of the themes of his re-election campaign. He proclaimed several times that America’s commitment to Israel is “unshakable.” The President opined that military and economic cooperation between the United Sates and Israel is the closest it has ever been.
One could not help feeling very proud to be an American Reform Jew at this gathering. Yet while we should derive justifiable satisfaction at what we have accomplished, we do well to heed the words of the Talmud that the President also cited: “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Our challenges are many and it is up to us to say, Here I am.