A Jewish perspective on Obama’s inauguration


The inauguration of President Barack Obama is a milestone on many levels. The related inaugural events (official and unofficial) numbered in the hundreds and trailed through a full week. I hope to simply give you a sense of the days building up to the Inauguration. For me it began on Friday afternoon, photographing President Bush and the First Lady as they left the White House on Marine One Helicopter to spend their last weekend at Camp David.

It was a great week to be out and walking around the city. And there were lots of opportunities to meet and talk with people and learn their stories. If you took the subway, every station seemed to be taken over by Obama-mania from the welcoming posters to the advertising for products and politics.

The J advertisement

My friend Flossie (a member of our Jewish Community Relations Council-sponsored dialogue group bringing together members of different faiths and races) attended the Inauguration with five of her grandchildren ages 10 to 15. “What mattered to the kids was the role model they had come to see these past two years in this ‘cool dude Obama,’ which they certainly mean in a most respectful way,” she said. “The kids wanted to go. And coming home made them mini-celebrities in their schools, standing for something that is right and good. One of them was asked by his Pastor to speak at Church this past Sunday. In fact, the kids in his Bible study group elected him their President. The congregation loved it when he said with real pride ‘I am now a President just like President Obama.’ “

On Sunday I first attended a Missouri reception hosted by Congressman Russ Carnahan and his wife, Judge Debra Carnahan. It was followed by tours of the Capitol for those interested and with time available. Sen. Claire McCaskill, Congressmen Carnahan and William Lacy Clay, both of St. Louis, and Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City were early supporters of Obama. Sen. McCaskill was an honorary co-chair of the Inauguration Committee and managed to Twitter her reactions during that day.

Sunday afternoon was the Concert on the Mall, the first of the official Inauguration events. I was able to get a Cab from the Capital and had a great conversation with its driver, George Fenderson. Our conversation capsulized a big message of this inauguration.

He had been given tickets to the inauguration but he gave them to his niece. He had lived the civil rights movement growing up in the south, was a proud veteran and had been active in politics.

He said he believed it was more important for younger generations to experience the moment and have a memory that would inspire them for life.

The concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial attracted 500,000 people. It began with an invocation delivered by openly gay Episcopal Bishop Robinson of New Hampshire. Entertainment included Bono, Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Sheryl Crow and Bruce Springsteen. The audience was energetic and loud, as you would expect from 500,000 celebrants. But after the initial cheering for then President-Elect Obama when he took the stage to talk, there was an incredible silence that fell over the mall.

It was an unexpected but very moving moment.

President Elect Obama had called for a national day of service on Martin Luther King’s birthday. The Washington Post reported that over 11,000 events were recorded all over the country. President-elect Obama, accompanied by Martin Luther King III, visited a District of Columbia shelter for homeless teenagers and helped paint as part of a renovation project.

The Jewish community was also active. I found about 20 Jewish communal events during these few days.

There was a joint program held in suburban Bethesda Maryland by PANIM, the National Jewish Democrat and National Jewish Republican committees – an excellent model marking the MLK Day call to service. There would be three Jewish inaugural balls – one with Klezmer Music, hosted by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, at Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue; another for the new pro-Obama Jewish Grassroots Network grassroots organizers (capping a series of seminars they hosted over several days) and one geared to 21 to 35 year olds at the D.C. Jewish Community Center.

And then there was the largest single Jewish event of the week called the Jewish Community

Inaugural Reception sponsored by nine organizations – the National Jewish Democratic Council, the United Jewish Communities, the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, AIPAC, NCSJ and the Jewish federations of New York, Chicago and Washington.

David Axelrod, senior policy advisor to President Obama, said he came to “to do a little kvelling” about the very high Jewish vote for Obama. He related his family story fleeing their homes after the pogroms. “They weren’t just looking for a place of safety, they were looking for a place of promise and opportunity and they were drawn to America – America was that beacon, ” he said. And Tuesday “would have been a great affirmation of that ” idea, Axelrod added.

“Not just that we elected Barack Obama, but that their son will be 20 feet from the Oval Office, and have a chief of staff named Rahm Emanel.” Needless to say there were big cheers. Other speakers included Israeli Ambassador Sallai Meridor, NJ Senator Lautenberg, actress Debra Winger, and Elie Wiesel.

Monday night was an especially fun program. St. Louis’ own real estate and hotel developers Michael and Steve Roberts were the hosts for a pre-inaugural reception honoring President- Elect Obama and the Congressional Black Caucus and it was headlined by George Clinton in full rainbow hair so appropriate for the occasion. It was sponsored by the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers. No political speeches here – just a great deal of joy and pride.

Philip Deitch is putting together a more detailed day to day summary of the week that will be posted on the web www.VitalVoice.com He is also creating a power point presentation on the Inauguration that he can show at your organization gathering. Philip has a long and recognized record in community organizing and diversity training. Contact him directly at [email protected]