It’s understandable why an audience member addressing a question to former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman after his lecture at The Jewishttp://www.jewishcenter.org/h Center last Wednesday evening referred to him as “rabbi.”
The title of his address was “For God and Country: The Role of Orthodox Jews in Society,” and it sounded at times like a sermon. There were frequent citations of biblical passages to bolster the underlying message that Jews have a responsibility to improve the world and be a light unto the nations.
The veteran of 24 years in the U.S. Senate and first Jew to run on a major party’s presidential ticket talked of his own sense of calling, as a young man in Connecticut. And he spoke eloquently of the biblical figure Nachshon, who when Moses prayed for the Israelites’ rescue at the Red Sea, with the Egyptians in hot pursuit, showed his faith by walking into the water.
“There is a time for prayer and a time for leadership,” Lieberman told a packed sanctuary of more than 500 people, encouraging his listeners to become involved in community service at a time when American Jews have more freedom than at any time in history.
The occasion was the first Manhattan program of Tov B’Yachad (Good Together), a UJA-Federation of New York project to build stronger ties between federation and the local Orthodox community. It was held in collaboration with May and Samuel Rudin Lecture Series at The Jewish Center, an Upper West Side Orthodox congregation.
The fact that the New York federation has such a program geared toward increasing participation with a particular denomination — it has no similar initiative with the Conservative or Reform communities — recognizes that many Orthodox Jews are either concentrating their charitable funds toward meeting steep day school tuition obligations or feel that federation does not address their needs, or both.
But Lieberman, echoing the introductory remarks of Eric Goldstein, CEO-elect of UJA-Federation and founder of Tov B’Yachad, asserted that the charity does more to fund day schools than any other organization. And he praised Goldstein as an exemplary example of observing one’s faith and serving the community.
In his remarks and in the question-and-answer session that followed, Lieberman, who now lives in Riverdale with his wife, Hadassah, said that Americans in general were deeply respectful of his faith and that he experienced no overt anti-Semitism during his 2000 run for vice president. He said it was “an extraordinary opportunity” in which he didn’t want people to vote for him because he was Jewish, “but I wanted to feel I’d done well and not embarrassed my Jewish community or made it difficult [for another Jew] to run in the future.”
He said he is troubled by those Orthodox Jews who are withdrawing from the larger society, “re-ghettoizing themselves,” a move he called “bad for the community and for America.”
On international affairs, he said Secretary of State John Kerry is “a good person with a genuine desire to get things done” and who “cares about Israel.” But as for progress on the Mideast peace initiative, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
He was more outspoken about Iran, saying the country is “violently anti-American” and led by “a fanatical group with hegemonic ambitions.
“I don’t see a single change in [Iran’s] policy since [its recent presidential] election,” he said.
Lieberman supports the Senate bill calling for tougher sanctions. “I’m sorry the president is trying to stop it. I’m very pessimistic” about negotiations with Iran. “Ultimately military action will be taken,” he noted, “and I hope it’s the U.S. to do it.”