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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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Why Ferguson matters to Jews

“Standing on the parted shores of history, we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot:

“That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt; that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness.

“That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.”

This passage is read every Friday night at my synagogue, Barnert Temple, and I am moved each time it is read. Ever since I was a teenager, I would picture Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walking hand in hand in 1965, marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama.

 

 

To a daughter on her way to Israel

We spend much of Thursday at Marshall’s.

“What do you think?” I ask you, frowning. “Here. Add up these numbers.” I read you the measurements of the cute red wheelie bag, and you punch the figures into your phone.

“It comes to 44, Mom. Perfect!” Perfect for El Al, that is. Height plus width plus depth, the dimensions of your carry-on luggage may not exceed 45 inches.

“That’s great, sweetie!” I say cheerfully, and we wheel it to the cashier. One more thing we can cross off the list.

 

 

The stuff of life

A friend from down the block made aliyah the other week.

I dropped by a couple of times the week before and watched the hustle and bustle—the rush to pack up 10 years of a family’s life into one single moving truck. What to take? What to discard? How is someone to choose such things when faced with years and years of stuff, of objects that awaken memories? “To-keep” labels were attached to the furniture, but piles of books and toys that had accumulated over the years were for the taking. Anything left over was to go to charity or into the trash. My friend quipped that they were moving only to get her family finally to clean up the house.

 

 

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The many faces of Zionism

Zionism is many things to many people.

For some, it is the great hope of the Jewish people and the guarantor of our survival. For others, including a noticeable number of Jews, it is the ruination of Jewish values and a form of racism, despite the U.N.’s long-overdue rejection of that equation in 1991. On one hand, for some Jews and Christian supporters it is a dream become reality. On the other hand, there are Jews and Christians—at least one group whose church organization voted to boycott some American companies doing business with Israel—who view Zionism as a nightmare composed of missed opportunities and worse. Why such disparate views about what appears to be a single ideology?

Writ large, classical Zionism was believed by all Zionists to be the national movement for the return of Jewry to its homeland and for the creation of a sovereign Jewish state. But Zionism never was a single ideology. There was socialist Zionism and revisionist Zionism, secular Zionism and religious Zionism. There was the Zionism that foresaw the disappearance of the diaspora and the Zionism that held Israel to be the center of the creation of a Jewish-Hebraic culture that would inform diaspora Jewish life and preserve it for generations to come.

 

Get your facts first

Do not be misled. Halachic divorce IS necessary.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who is the chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel, chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, and erstwhile rabbi of Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, recently published an article called “When is Halachic Divorce Necessary?”

Rabbi Riskin discusses the halachic stance popularized by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein with apparent approval. Known to many as “Reb Moshe,” Rabbi Feinstein was the author of the collection of rabbinic responsa called “Igrot Moshe.” Rabbi Riskin summarizes: “a ‘get’ [religious divorce] is a necessity only for a halachic marriage: the very concept of marriage is unique to the halachic context and therefore the halachic obligation of a ‘get’ applies only within the unique rubric of a halachic marriage.”

 

The sounds of Elul

We’re in Elul now, the month preceding Tishrei, the month of Rosh Hashanah.

In many ways, Elul is set apart from the other months. It shares with Cheshvan, the month after Tishrei, the distinction of having neither holiday nor holy day, neither feast nor fast. Tishrei is overcrowded with special times — Rosh Hashanah, the Fast of Gedalia, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah. Thirteen of that month’s 30 days are spoken for, preprogrammed. It’s no wonder that we must build up to it slowly, and when we must recuperate in Cheshvan.

Elul is a bit of a conundrum. Its two special observances embody the double message it gives us. The uncertainties of divine judgment and the assurance of unconditional divine love vie for our attention. To clarify the core ambiguities, we could start by looking at the two observances unique to Elul.

 
 
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