On Friday last week, as preparations were underway for Shabbat, the President of the United States, Barak Obama, was teaching Torah to 6,000 Jews. As the keynote speaker of the Biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism, the President delivered a speech which was met with applause and laughter throughout, and a thunderous standing ovation at the end.
The Union for Reform Judaism is the largest Jewish movement in America, representing more than 900 communities and approximately 1.5 million people. With their Biennial in Washington DC, they greeted Representative Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader in Congress, and Israeli Minister of Defence, Ehud Barak; but everyone was most excited about the appearance of the President. On the day of his speech queues developed over four hours before he was due to speak, and long before the doors to the hall were even open.
The President was clearly conscious of his audience, beginning by mentioning by name a number of the Reform Jewish leaders in the hall. He followed this with “a shout-out to NFTY” (the American equivalent of RSY-Netzer or LJY-Netzer), which was met by deafening cheers and applause from the hundreds of young people present.
He maintained his focus on the youth by sharing his family experiences of Judaism today, as his daughter Malia is being invited to Bnei Mitzvah almost every weekend. In advance of these celebrations the negotiations in the White House appeared to be about the skirts which she would be wearing.
For many, the highlight of the speech came as the President shared what he had learned from Malia, the family expert on Jewish tradition, “that it never hurts to begin a speech by discussing the Torah portion.” He followed the teaching of many Bible scholars, by focussing on a single word spoken by Joseph to his father Jacob – using the Hebrew, he shared the word Hineni and translated it as “Here I am”. He even knew that this word was spoken by Abraham at the binding of Isaac and by Moses at the burning bush.
He returned to this theme at the end of his speech, as he expounded some of the problems facing the world and some facing America specifically. He said that there was a need for Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world:
“So today we look forward to the world not just as it is but as it could be. And when we do, the truth is clear: Our union is not yet perfect. Our world is still in desperate need of repair. And each of us still hears that call.
And the question is, how we will respond? In this moment, every American, of every faith, every background has the opportunity to stand up and say: Here I am. Hineni. Here I am. I am ready to keep alive our country’s promise. I am ready to speak up for our values at home and abroad.”
One might wonder if “Here I am” is about to become the slogan for the 2012 presidential campaign.
And it was not just the 6,000 people in the hall who were able to hear the President’s speech. The event was live streamed by the Union for Reform Judaism, but they were not the only ones as CNN was also broadcasting the event on their website.
While people waited for the President to appear on stage (one rumour was that a conversation with Ehud Barak had overrun) the audience was entertained by Jewish music star, Josh Nelson. He kept the crowd amused by taking requests and singing a number of Jewish songs. CNN did not only therefore broadcast the President’s address to the entire world, they also introduced countless people to the delights of contemporary Jewish music.
It is a testament to the place of the Reform movement and the Jewish community in America, that President Obama decided to spend time addressing the Biennial. He demonstrated an understanding of Jewish values, he taught the community Torah, and he reminded everyone what an impressive orator he is. He appeared to enjoy the experience, and as people surged forward at the end trying to shake the President’s hand, following a standing ovation, it was clear that the audience had also enjoyed their somewhat unique, but rather moving, pre-Shabbat experience.