Sounding humanitarian themes and a message of unity in his Jan. 20 address, President Joe Biden’s inauguration was heralded with hope by the head of Jewish Federations of North America and by Greater Cleveland rabbis.
“My whole soul is in it today, this January day,” Biden said during his 21 minutes of remarks after he took the oath of office in front of the U.S. Capitol under sunny skies. “My whole soul is in this. Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause. Uniting to fight the foes we face – anger, resentment and hatred. Extremism, violence, disease, joblessness, hopelessness.
“With unity we can do great things,” he said, listing among them overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic, having safe schools, securing racial justice and to “make America once again the leading force for good in the world.”
“This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day, a day of history and hope, of renewal and resolve through a crucible for the ages,” Biden said. “America has been tested anew, and America has risen to the challenge.”
The inauguration had restricted attendance and the presence of 25,000 members of the National Guard in the Washington, D.C. area. This was in the wake of the Jan. 6 violence in which supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the the same steps and Capitol building during the Electoral College’s certification of votes for the presidential election. Trump was the first president in modern history to boycott and not attend his successor’s inauguration.
Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, and his wife, Karen, did attend, however.
On Jan. 20, Trump bid farewell to Washington, D.C., and without mentioning Biden by name, he wished the new administration great luck and success, which he said would be made easier because he had laid “a foundation,” The Associated Press reported.
Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America, told the CJN Jan. 20 that Jews, who love ritual and ceremony, should be inspired by the bipartisan leadership at the inauguration.
“There are of course long and deep relationships between Jewish community leaders and the president and many members of his incoming team,” said Fingerhut, who grew up in the Cleveland area and also lived in the Columbus area as an Ohio elected official.
“He’s hardly an unknown commodity,” said Fingerhut, referring to Biden’s 30 years in the U.S. Senate and his eight years as vice president under President Barack Obama, “Whatever the issue, whether it’s an issue where we have natural agreement or it’s an issue where we may have some concerns, we fully expect an open and respectful and substantive dialogue.”
As to immediate specifics, he said JFNA is involved with COVID-19 economic relief.
“At least in the early days, that’s a very promising area of work for us with them,” he said. “We noted well Secretary of State (nominee Antony) Blinken’s statement at his Senate confirmation hearing affirming Jerusalem as the capital and support for the Abraham Accords.”
Fingerhut said he hopes Biden will continue use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism in the federal government, which Trump adopted in a 2019 executive order.
Rabbi Noah Leavitt, spiritual leader of Oheb Zedek Cedar Sinai Synagogue in Lyndhurst, a Modern Orthodox synagogue, noted Biden was in Israel March 8, 2016, when Taylor Force was stabbed to death on the West Bank and he spoke movingly about it afterward.
“My hope and expectation is that President Biden will continue the longstanding bipartisan support that has existed over the last several decades,” Leavitt told the CJN. “And I know he has a long relationship with AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) from his time in the Senate.”
In addition, “He has a sense of the dangers of terrorism in Israel and how that really affects real people’s lives … I hope that he holds onto that memory.”
Rabbi Matt Eisenberg of Temple Israel Ner Tamid in Mayfield Heights, a Reform temple, praised the work of Trump in Israel and said he hopes Biden can build upon it.
“The normalization with four Arab Muslim countries in 2020 was a sea change and a very positive sea change for UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and now last month Morocco to normalize relations with Israel was a very good sign,” Eisenberg told the CJN, adding he is pleased with the commitment on the part of both Bahrain and Morocco to combat anti-Semitism. “In terms of the (Palestinian) territories and settlements, I will wait to hear from the new president.”
Rabbi Joshua Skoff, senior rabbi of Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights and Pepper Pike, a Conservative congregation, said he carries hope for the new president and looks forward to seeing what Biden does, now that he will be at the helm regarding Israel.
“As a senator, he was part of Senate committees,” Skoff told the CJN. “As a vice president he was clearly working in the second role under a president. So this is really the first time that he can act on his own.”
On Jan. 19, the day before his inauguration, Biden was blessed by Rabbi Michael Beals at the National Guard/Reserve Center in New Castle, Del. Beals referred to himself as Biden’s rabbi. He leads Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington, which is about 4 miles from the Bidens’ main residence in Greenville, Del.
“You already know the Yiddish word for mensch,” Beals said. “It means a person who endeavors to consistently do the right thing. Textbook example: Joe Biden.”
He said Biden’s election is bashert, using the Yiddish term for “meant to be.”
“Among your closer Jewish friends together, your administration will always be affectionately known as Momala and the mensch,” Beals said in his blessing, referring also to Vice President Kamala Harris. “Stay safe our friend.”
He called upon Biden, whom he termed “our Moses,” to defeat the plague of COVID-19, rebuild infrastructure and kickstart the economy, address global climate change and “rid us of 400 years of institutional racism.”
He closed by offering Biden the priestly blessing, translating the final words asking that G-d give Biden “wholeness, the gift of completeness, the gift of peace.”
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati, who attended the inauguration, offered congratulations to Biden and Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, who is the first Jewish spouse of a vice president, now known as the Second Gentleman.
“I look forward to working with the new administration on areas where we agree in order to make a difference in the lives of Ohioans and all Americans,” Portman said in his statement. “When we disagree, I will do so respectfully. Public service is a noble calling and anyone who serves deserves the respect of the American people, regardless of political affiliation.”
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, who didn’t attend the inauguration, also offered congratulations.
“American workers will finally have someone on their side in the White House, and millions of girls – especially Black and brown girls – all over the country are seeing that there is no limit to their dreams, and they belong in every room where decisions are made,” Brown said in his statement from Cleveland. “I look forward to working with President Biden, Vice President Harris and my colleagues to rise to meet the challenges before us, bring our country together and continue our fight for the dignity of work.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated Biden and Harris in a statement.
“President Biden, you and I have had a warm personal friendship going back many decades,” he stated Jan. 20. “I look forward to working with you to further strengthen the U.S.-Israel alliance, to continue expanding peace between Israel and the Arab world and to confront common challenges, chief among them the threat posed by Iran. I wish you the greatest success. God bless the United States of America. God bless Israel.”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin tweeted congratulations to Biden and sent a more substantive message, according to JNS.org.
“Our region is changing quickly,” Rivlin said. “Many of the changes are positive. The recent peace deals between Israel and our neighbors brought new hope with them, and I expect to work with you to help build further bridges in the region, including with our Palestinian neighbors.”
AIPAC, whose CEO is former Cleveland Heights resident Howard Kohr, tweeted, “We congratulate President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, and look forward to working together with the new administration to strengthen and expand the U.S.-Israel relationship.”