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The American journey continues: Reflections on Obama

 
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Change was the mantra of this election and change is what is bringing Barack Obama to the White House. America’s capacity for change is different from the kind that exists in other countries, where change connotes a complete rupture from the past. Change in America is a continuing American revolution, rooted in the principles of the founders, a search for a more perfect union. Those two ideas — the need for change, but a search for something better rather than complete revolution — found expression in Obama’s elegant words on election night, in which he reminded us that the dream of the founders is very much alive in our time.

Sen. John McCain’s extremely gracious concession speech, reflecting his decency and patriotism, also represented change without rupture. Both candidates made it clear that it was a day of celebration, because on this day America redeemed itself from its tortured history of racism.

This election has special meaning for me, because my cousin, Julius Genachowski, is an old friend and long-time adviser of Obama and very active in the successful campaign. Julius and Obama attended Harvard Law School together in the early 1990s and both served on the Law Review. They attended each other’s weddings (with Obama participating in the Jewish dances at Julius’ wedding) and have remained close to this day. Julius went to yeshiva through high school and studied in yeshiva in Israel before going to Columbia and then Harvard, where he met Obama. Later, Julius clerked for Supreme Court Justice David Souter. Obama and Julius bonded, in part, because they were both outsiders — one a former yeshiva boy and son of immigrants, the other an African- American with international roots.

Julius tells me that Obama has always been able to relate to the Jewish experience because of his own background as well as the African-American experience of slavery and discrimination. Julius knows that part of Obama’s agenda is to heal the breach between Jews and blacks and to restore the close ties that existed during the civil rights movement.

Obama affirmed those ties at the AIPAC Policy Conference in June: “In the great social movements in our country’s history, Jewish and African-Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder. They took buses down south together. They marched together. They bled together. And Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were willing to die alongside a black man — James Chaney — on behalf of freedom and equality. Their legacy is our inheritance.”

And Julius surely enjoyed these words: “I have been proud to be part of a strong, bipartisan consensus that has stood by Israel in the face of all threats. That is a commitment that both John McCain and I share, because support for Israel in this country goes beyond party…. Those who threaten Israel threaten us…. And I will bring to the White House an unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.”

Over the last eight years the American brand has been eroded and its prestige in the world diminished as we have become a go-alone nation, now with an economy in crisis. If America is weakened, Israel is weakened. When people asked me whom to vote for, I would respond, “Vote for the person you think is best for America. He is the person who is best for Israel.”

What we need is a president who is more cerebral and less intuitive; who responds with his head and not his gut; who is more empirical and less ideological. Obama has demonstrated these qualities again and again.

To those who say — and did so vociferously during the campaign — that Obama is too young and inexperienced to accomplish these goals, that he makes great speeches, but that words are not enough, I would counter, don’t hold Obama’s age and oratory against him. There have been only four presidents elected in their 40s: Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and now Obama. But each brought intellect and vigor to the art of governance and went on to be extremely successful presidents.

Each was a gifted speaker as well. Abraham Lincoln proved that words can save a nation during wartime; FDR re-taught that lesson during a subsequent time of crisis. Don’t underestimate the power of words in the hands of a talented leader. Words can inspire, set forth a vision, and lead the nation to fulfill its potential.

Obama’s life story positions him perfectly to restore America’s place in the world and to reaffirm old alliances. The multiracial blood that courses in his veins; his experiences as the child of a single mother and as a child who saw his father just once in his life; his moving around the country and to Indonesia enable him relate to a world no longer dominated by Pax Americana and is certain to help him rebuild America’s standing in the community of nations — as noted, an important element in safeguarding Israel’s security and existence.

How Barack Obama manages change — in both domestic and foreign affairs — will be a major element of how well he succeeds as president. He is untested, for sure, and is young as presidents go, but Obama has the capacity to manage change in the interests of enhancing human freedom and opportunity; in restoring to America its genuine spirit; in making both the United States and Israel more secure in a dangerous world; and in rebuilding the ties that once joined Jews and African- Americans in the struggle against inequality.

The poet Archibald MacLeish observed, “The American journey has not ended. America is never accomplished. America is always still to build.” So we wake up to a new America, an America that “is always still to build.” Barack Obama has the capacity to build something very good. Let us wish him well and pray for his success.

Rabbi Menachem Genack
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Tzitz, tefillin, and the halachic process

Recent weeks have seen much discussion about the permissibility of women wearing tefillin.

Although I do not question the sincerity of the parties involved, and maintain high regard for the individuals involved, I see this as an opportunity to reflect on the unique mitzvah of tefillin and on maintaining the integrity of the halachic process. In addition to the specific halachic question involved, this controversy also raises the broader question of how halachah functions, and I would like to provide some perspective on both of these issues.

 

 

Ask the right questions

With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millenials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passé.

Forget the halachic dimensions to this endlessly debatable topic. Forget all the moralizing arguments over the issue. Forget the demographically induced paranoia, the post-Holocaust hand-wringing, the Israeli legal maneuvering (not to mention the pandering that comes with it), and the denominational infighting. And — for heaven’s sake! — forget the Pew study.

The fact is that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance — to regain it, really — the question we must ask today is “Why be Jewish?”

 

 

We need to ask new questions

I have survey fatigue.

It seems that every other year a new survey about the Jewish population is published. When it is, we have the inevitable hand-wringing from many corners of the Jewish world about the statistics and trends present in the survey. Indeed, the last Pew Study on the American Jewish Population, which was released last fall, has caused the usual spike in anxiety.

What is interesting about this particular Pew survey, though, is that is can be read in two completely different ways, one positive and one negative. More ink has been spilled on the seemingly negative statistics that came out of the survey. Twenty-two percent of Jews identify as cultural Jews, or as the survey calls them, “Jews of no religion.” These Jews are more likely to intermarry and move away from the Jewish community entirely. Two thirds of the Jews of no religion are not raising their children as Jews. Intermarriage rates also are rising; the study says that six in 10 Jews who have gotten married since 2000 have married a non-Jew. Observance levels across the board are also declining; when compared to the 2000 National Jewish Population Study, slightly fewer Jews are attending Passover seders and observing Yom Kippur. And when people change denominations there is a trend toward becoming less observant — or more liberal. Reform Judaism is now being the largest Jewish denomination, and people leave Reform to become “Jews of no religion.”

 

 

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Passover reflections

Freedom is a tricky entity.

It can open avenues of positive imagination and creativity because a free people’s potential belongs ultimately to them and need not answer to a master who may limit that potential.

This is why the Haggadah must open with questions. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that if a person celebrates Pesach alone, he must ask himself the questions that lead into the story of the Exodus. The right to question, the ability to challenge authority, is the sign that a person ultimately is free. As long as an authority can say, “Keep that unacceptable idea to yourself,” you are not free. Therefore our Festival of Freedom must start with questions, which are always in some way subversive.

 

 

Why be Jewish? I’ll answer the question myself

In March I wrote in the Jewish Standard about the challenges posed to the organized Jewish community by my generation, the much- (if not, over-) discussed Millennials (“So, really, why be Jewish?”).

We need to refocus ourselves, I said, by turning away from questions like “Who is a Jew?” The key Jewish question of our time is this: Why be Jewish? “With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millennials, the question, ‘Who is a Jew?’ is rather passé,” I wrote. “The fact is that ‘Who is a Jew?’ is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance—to regain it, really—the question we must ask today is ‘Why be Jewish?’”

 

 

Hudson County is welcome to the federation

I read Joshua Einstein’s op-ed piece in last week’s Jewish Standard with great interest (“Hudson County needs a federation”).

He’s made a great case for creating a formal connection between Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Hudson County Jewish community. His argument makes sense. Northern Hudson County has been in our coverage area for many years, so we already have connections there. We now provide services to southern Hudson, including those services Einstein mentions, and more. So it all seems like a natural fit.

 

 
 
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