This country has yet to have a Jewish president, but on numerous occasions the kitchen of the White House is kashered for a holiday event. Last week, President Joe Biden and his First Lady Jill Biden hosted Jewish leaders and activists for Rosh HaShanah.
“The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who passed away two years ago, once said that the most important lesson of the High Holidays is that nothing is broken beyond repair. Nothing is broken beyond repair. It’s never too late to change and to be better. I’ve always believed that message, and I also think it’s universal,” he said at the event. “I believe that message is universal. And we’ve emerged from one of our most difficult moments in our history. I believe nothing is broken beyond repair, and there’s a lot we can do to change things and bring people together.”
The tweet echoed the message of his White House gathering, where he delivered a lengthy speech that was followed by Douglas Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris. It resembled a sermon from a pulpit in the way that it addressed the Yamim Nora’im.
“The prayers on Yom Kippur begin with ‘we’: We have gone astray. We have not lived up to the best versions of ourselves – as individuals and as a community. It’s a recognition of a powerful truth: that we fail together, we forgive together, and we heal together, too.”
Emhoff spoke of his official Washington residence and his childhood in Brooklyn. “The doorposts there are protected by mezuzos — that’s two mezuzahs. We hosted a Passover Seder. We’ve lit a historic menorah for Chanukah. But now, we gather in the White House during the Days of Awe, as Dr. Biden mentioned, between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.”
“Now, in my family, Rosh HaShanah meant a trip to my grandmother’s apartment in Brooklyn. And I can still smell that brisket cooking – and burning – in the kitchen. I can still taste the slightly warm challah, but slightly stale – on the table.”
Representing the diversity of American Jewry, the guest list included the leading Orthodox organizations and other denominations, along with activists who would usually be seen on the opposite side of a demonstration or lawsuit concerning Jewish education and religious rights. It included well-known Jews of color, feminists, performers, reporters, and lawmakers, a who’s who that would take too long to name, as Biden acknowledged.
“Now, if I acknowledge everyone by name, we’ll be here for the Chanukah reception in December,” he said to the laughter of the guests.
A few names that he mentioned were former Florida Rep. Ted Deutsch, who resigned from his seat to serve as the CEO of the American Jewish Committee, and his colleague Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee. But the most memorable name for Biden was the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom, the conservative synagogue in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware.
“Beth Shalom is home for countless friends. And, for me, it’s been – it’s been a home. And over the years, we’ve shared deep conversations about faith and – and finding purpose. And they’ve always, always, always been there for my family in the good times and not-so-good times.”
He then spoke about his administration’s support for Israel, confronting anti-Semitism, which included a summit at the White house to discuss hate crimes. He concluded his remarks by introducing Israeli-born violinist Itzhak Perlman, who then played at the event.
Events such as this White House Rosh HaShanah gathering should not be taken lightly. They demonstrate that Jews are a defining element in the country’s multicultural mosaic, whose moral teachings inspire public policy for lawmakers in both parties. The personal anecdotes shared by the president follow in a long tradition extending back to George Washington, who also visited synagogues and exchanged greetings with the Jewish community.
By Sergey Kadinsky