BOCA RATON, FLORIDA * Senator Barack Obama came to Temple B'nai Torah this afternoon. As will often happen with candidates out on the campaign trail, his arrival was delayed by several hours. And although he apologized for being tardy and making us wait, he never did mention the reason for his delay. As I found out later that night, he had hopped up to Capitol Hill in order to vote in favor of a measure which greatly expands the G.I. Bill. He could have taken the high, self-serving road and told those assembled why he was late. He could also have taken the low, "finger-pointing" road and flailed Senator McCain for being one of 22 Republicans voting against our men and women in uniform.
Instead, he did neither.
This was not his reason for going to shul.
Rather, he was here, in the midst of approximately 750 mostly-Jewish men, women and teens, to talk about himself, Israel, and anti-Semitism, and to address head-on the virtual St. Vitus' dance of fear that has been such a noxious staple of cyberspace this past year
I managed to snag a VIP pass and, guiltily walking past the long line of folks standing out in the rain, was seated about 6 feet away from the senator. Sitting with me were -- somewhat surprisingly -- at least thee lions of the Republican Party and a couple of die-hard Clinton acolytes. They, like so many in the assembled minyan, were not there because they already supported Senator Obama. Rather, they had come to find out for themselves just who the "skinny guy with the strange-sounding name" is, and whether or not he will be as bad for Israel as so many have claimed.
Senator Obama certainly had his work cut out for himself.
To make the senator's task even more challenging, just the day before he attended shul, the New York Times ran a story entitled "Many Florida Jews Express Doubts On Obama." In the article, staff writer Jodi Kantor quoted a handful of South Florida Jews who were dismissive -- if not downright hostile -- to Senator Obama's candidacy. One elderly woman said she would never vote for Obama "because of his attitude on Israel." A second averred that Obama "is part of Chicago's large Palestinian community." A third worried that if he were elected, Obama "might fill his administration with followers of Louis Farrakhan." And yet a fourth opined, "His father was a Muslim and you can't take that out of him."
No one ever said running for president was easy; especially when you're a guy named Barack Obama, and you're speaking in a synagogue before more Jews than the rabbi has seen since last Rosh Hashana.
With a mesmerizing mix of eloquence and erudition, articulation and affability, the Senator won over the vast majority of the assembled minyan. During the more than two hours he spent speaking and dialoguing, Senator Obama made it abundantly clear that he was, is, and always shall be, a staunch defender of the Jewish State. [One should know a fact: after going over the voting records of both Senator Clinton and Obama vis-a-vis issues pertaining to Israel, AIPAC -- the main Israel support lobby in the U.S. gave both a 100% rating. That's 100% of the time that both senators voted in a manner that was favorable to the Jewish State.]
Senator Obama told of how, as a youngster attending summer camp, he had a Jewish counselor who told him about Zionism:
"I really connected with it, because in Zionism, there is this sense of rootedness, of having a place and a home. And for a kid with my unusual background . . . and not knowing precisely where I fit, this struck a tremendous chord."
When asked about his relationship with a Palestinian professor from the University of Chicago, the Senator said:
"Yes, I have met the man, but why do people automatically conclude that therefore I must be in agreement with what he espouses? People do have the ability to listen to those with whom they disagree. How can one ever make any progress if the only folks they talk to are those with whom they are in agreement?"
Obama went on to say:
"I don't want to get in to the 'some of my best friends are Jewish' trap, because it's terribly demeaning. But I will tell you this: when I first ran [unsuccessfully] for Congress against Bobby Rush, the main argument against me was that I was too close to the Jewish community! I have always believed that Jewish and African Americans have an historic bond, an historic memory. I mourn the passing of the time when Jewish Americans and African Americans worked together in harmony to bring about change. If it weren't for the Jewish community and their central role in the Civil Rights struggle, I wouldn't be here today, running for President of the United States."
Addressing all the emails that are going around [indeed, I just received one entitled "The Fifty Lies of Barack Obama"], he made a telling point with a fine degree of humor:
"You know, no one believes those emails that start out: 'I'm a Nigerian who has $5 million in the bank but can't get at it . . . however if you'll only send me a thousand dollars . . .' Or all those medicines that promise to help expand your . . . well, let's not go there . . . [laughter] . . . But seriously, why then do people believe scurrilous rumors? Promising millions for nothing or potency for pennies has about as much reality as proclaiming that I am a Jihadist."
Many in the crowd were of the opinion that "George W. Bush is the best friend Israel has ever had." I hear this from my students more often than is comfortable. Senator Obama addressed this in words of stark simplicity:
"In the past seven years, Iran has become infinitely more powerful than ever before. It has given tremendous financial support to the major enemies of Israel. This has all happened under the Bush-Cheney-McCain watch. How can anyone conclude that the one who empowers your worst enemy is your best friend? It doesn't make any sense."
One person in the crowd asked why, in saying he would convene a summit meeting of all Arab countries, he excluded Israel, Obama smiled and answered:
"Well first, Israel isn't an Arab country; its a Jewish State. Secondly, they are our strongest ally . . . our best friend in the region. The countries we would be talking to are the ones we want to convince that someday, somehow, they're going to have to learn how to live in peace with Israel. If you only talk to your friends, there is absolutely no chance that you're ever going to be able to change your enemies. That is part of the definition of courage"
By way of example, Senator Obama mentioned how, when speaking before students at a school of Ramallah, he told them, "One day you are going to have to learn to live in peace with Israel."
Did Senator Obama's "performance" make supporters out of everyone in attendance? Probably not, for he is, as we say in Hebrew, raq basar va'dahm ["merely flesh and blood"]. Nonetheless, I believe he quelled the fear and uncertainty in many hearts.
There no doubt will always be those who choose to believe the worst about Senator Obama -- or anyone in the public eye for that matter. There will also always be those who seek to hide incipient racism beneath the veneer of inept rhetoric. And believe me, I am fully expecting people to write and tell me that I have had the wool pulled over my eyes -- that Senator Obama is a Muslim, ant-Semitic . . . the whole nine yards.
And yet, for at least one afternoon, in one shul, the minyan had the opportunity to listen to -- and share with -- a man who reminded us that the Arabic barack and the Hebrew baruch share the same meaning: "Blessed."
It was a "sermon" well worth the wait.
Oh yes: by the end, even the three Republicans were on their feet.
And don't worry about being late Senator. You see, ever since Sinai, we've been on Jewish Standard Time . . .
©2008 Kurt F. Stone