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Jews in New York Reflect on an Historic Inauguration Day

Jews in New York Reflect on an Historic Inauguration Day

We asked rabbis, leaders and change-makers to share their hopes for a Biden-Harris administration.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier just after the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony, Jan. 20, 2021. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier just after the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony, Jan. 20, 2021. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Joseph Biden became the 46th president of the United States and Kamala Harris the 49th vice president. The Jewish Week asked prominent leaders here for their reactions on the day and for their hopes for a Biden-Harris administration.

Rachel Ain: “Joy comes in the morning”

Rabbi Rachel Ain

This morning at our daily service we included Tachanun, the prayer of supplication, though some might choose to exclude it on national days of celebration. But as Jews we understand what it means to mourn and celebrate simultaneously. And so too, today, as American Jews, we mourn and we celebrate. My actions over the past 24 hours have demonstrated that.

Yesterday evening, my family placed a candle in the window and watched the images of the memorial in D.C. to remember the 400,000 Americans who we have lost to Covid.

Last night, my family was grateful to the healthcare workers who have been working tirelessly and today, to those in law enforcement who are protecting our sacred spaces.

And finally, today, my community recited the aspirational words of the Prayer for Our County: “May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony to banish all hatred and bigotry and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions which are the pride and glory of our country.”

And so we wish success to President Biden and Vice President Harris who represent the vision and values and purpose of this country, a leadership that reflects the tapestry of who we strive to be, and as Psalm 30:5 says, “Weeping may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning.”

Rabbi Rachel Ain is the Rabbi at Sutton Place Synagogue, a Conservative synagogue in Midtown Manhattan.

Eric Goldstein: “To heal our deeply fractured nation”

Eric Goldstein

As we embark on this new chapter in American history, we congratulate our new president and vice president. With the events of Jan. 6 still fresh in our minds, today is a moment to celebrate our enduring democracy and the peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next.

Our community and nation face vast challenges. The vaccine is cause for real optimism about the current health crisis, but there’s no vaccine on the horizon for food insecurity, unemployment, systemic inequity, or growing anti-Semitism. To heal our deeply fractured nation, and the fractures within our own Jewish community, we must re-learn how to engage with people of goodwill with whom we disagree, knowing that none of us has a monopoly on the truth, and recognizing that only together can we tackle the enormous challenges — and opportunities — ahead of us.

Eric S. Goldstein is CEO of UJA-Federation of New York.

Tova Ricardo: “With my head held a little higher”

Tova Ricardo

I woke to my fragile America with the whisper of the Modeh Ani prayer upon my lips. I breathed a sigh into an America I love and have often felt unloved by. I fluffed my hair and washed my face in a day I was unsure would be safer for me as a Black Jewish woman. It was impossible to not think about the moments when I tucked my Magen David necklace away or how I am one generation removed from Jim Crow. I walk out the door everyday hoping to return home unscathed by violence or hatred. I ask Hashem to give me strength and purpose. I am a powerful woman who writhes in fear on this fragile land.

Yet, I saw Madam Vice President Kamala Harris through my screen in a glory of purple and pearls. She graced the Capitol building with the unspoken legacies of Howard University, AKA sorority, and Oakland, California. Today, I will go into my beloved and fraught nation with my head held a little higher, and still on a swivel.

Tova Ricardo is a senior at Columbia University and co-founder of the Jews of Color Caucus, Columbia/Barnard Hillel.

Menachem Creditor: “Let the great work begin”

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

We Americans must decide today that “the political divide” is simply a catchphrase and a distraction. The real issue is seeing people with whom we disagree as people. We must acknowledge where we all, as a shared society, are broken, if we are to truly engage in the work of healing. And we are deeply, deeply broken.

All Americans, Jews included, are responsible for the reestablishment of truth and trust in our communities. As the ancient sage Rabbi Joshua ben Perachiah once said, “Find for yourself a teacher, make a friend, and give all people the benefit of the doubt.” Jewish tradition would have us remember that ideas like unity and faith are shallow promises unless our communal decisions reflect the very real belief in a common good and the commitment to actions that affirm universal human dignity.

The sorrow that unites us in the face of 400,000 American lives lost to Covid must translate into a culture of healing and of kindness, grace and respect. There will be no real peace if there is not enacted justice. As the ancient sage Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel taught, “on three things does the world depend: on justice, on truth, and on peace.” Let there be hope. Let the great work begin today. Let it begin with me. May God bless the United States of America.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor is the Pearl and Ira Meyer Scholar in Residence of UJA-Federation of New York and the founder of Rabbis Against Gun Violence. 

Uriel Epshtein: Rising above partisanship

Uriel Epshtein

The comparison between Joe Biden’s inauguration speech today and Donald Trump’s speech four years ago is striking. The former called for unity, the latter for division; the former evoked trust and empathy, the latter anger and grievance. The former issued a clarion call to our allies abroad that they could once again trust us and, to our foes, that they should once again fear us. The latter couldn’t tell the two apart.

We have an opportunity now that rises beyond partisanship. Though we cannot achieve unity without accountability, we should also recognize that revenge is not the same thing as justice. We should trust in our legal system to root out any corruption that occurred over the past few years while striving to extend an open hand to one another, even and especially if we disagree. There will be time for policy squabbles, but for now, our focus should be on shoring up our democracy, our international alliances, and overcoming this pandemic together.

Uriel Epshtein is executive director of the Renew Democracy Initiative, which on Feb. 15 will hold a pro-democracy virtual rally headlined by Lt. Col. (Ret) Alexander Vindman.

Ann Toback: “Actions matter more”

Ann Toback

Today is a day of hope. As we celebrate the transfer of power to a new president who has spoken of unity and committed to restoring immigrant rights, protecting our environment, and more, I recall the day four years ago, when a very different president took office, and made very different promises. I remember urging our Workers Circle community to redouble our activism and never forget that we stood on the shoulders of Eastern European immigrant founders, whose fierce collective engagement allowed them to overcome so many obstacles in their path to freedom and opportunity in the United States.

The past four years have shown us how fragile our democracy is, how innocent people can be marginalized and attacked, how systemic racism continues to brutalize people of color — all while white nationalism has fueled anti-Semitic attacks on our own community.

Today my message from four years ago still holds true: We must make a lifetime commitment to activism that protects democracy for all. We must protect our immigrant brothers and sisters, and work together to end centuries of systemic racism. We must fight back against the language of hate that has overtaken our national discourse. Words matter. Actions matter more.

Ann Toback is the CEO of the Workers Circle.

Dov Linzer: “What this country stands for”

Rabbi Dov Linzer

A rabbi is not just a teacher of Torah. He or she is an embodiment of Torah, tradition and our deepest values and ethos. A president, ideally, is no different. What he or she can contribute to us as a nation is not just wise policy and strong leadership, but a model, in person, bearing, and speech, of who we are as a people, our deepest values and aspirations.

Words such as “[We stand for] opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor and, yes, the truth,” and that “disagreement must not lead to disunion… I will be a president for all Americans, all Americans,” gave me true hope. Hope not just in Biden’s future policies, but in what it means to have a symbol, a concretization, of what this country stands for. Rav Kook writes that “the honor afforded leaders of countries… is due to their ability to set the straight path, and to establish morality and justice on its proper foundation… Therefore it is important to see these leaders, who embody their nation’s ethos, [as those] whom all of us as Jews can learn from and be elevated by.” With today’s inauguration, I have hope that we can realize this vision.

Rabbi Dov Linzer is the president and Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.

Matt Nosanchuk: “Renewal, progress and healing”

Matt Nosanchuk

What a difference four years makes! In January 2017, I was at Andrews Air Force Base, gathered with fellow Obama-Biden administration appointees, to bid farewell to the Obamas. Our hearts were filled with gratitude for the progress we made as a nation and apprehension for what lay ahead.

Today, my New York Jewish Agenda colleagues and I celebrate the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, an historic day filled with the promises of renewal, progress and healing. The incoming administration shares many of the core Jewish and democratic values that power our work: dignity, equality, justice, responsibility and unity. We are eager to see the new administration provide the urgent national leadership needed to combat Covid-19 as we work to protect the most vulnerable members of our society in this time of crisis.

We join the Biden-Harris administration in fighting hatred and division in this country, including systemic racism, rising anti-Semitism and white nationalism.

Finally, we salute Kamala Harris on becoming the first woman and first person of color to rise to the office of vice president — long overdue milestones that move America ever closer to fulfilling its founding vision of equality for all.

Matt Nosanchuk is president of New York Jewish Agenda and a former Obama-Biden administration senior official.

Yosie Levine: “A time to renew our faith”

Rabbi Yosie Levine

The events of Jan. 20 have given us much about which to be hopeful. I was heartened by President Biden’s willingness to invoke God and to pray. The ethos of religious commitment has been one of the pillars on which this country has stood for more than two centuries. For our founding fathers, the notion of Providence was a given. The Bible is not a prop and its contents are not punchlines. That our new president knows as much should be a source of comfort to all communities of faith.

Second, I am hopeful about the prospect of service. Rabban Gamliel once sent for two outstanding students whom he intended to place at the head of the academy. When they declined to appear, Rabban Gamliel asked a rhetorical question that resonates as loudly today as it did all those years ago. “Do you fancy that I am offering you a position of authority? I am offering you a position of servitude” (Horayot 10a) It was this sentiment that George Washington captured in his first inaugural address when he spoke of being summoned by his country and called into service. President Biden sounded these notes yesterday. I hope they will continue to carry the day.

And finally, it was consoling to hear that – as a nation – we have license to give voice to our aspirations. Rather than orienting ourselves around all that’s wrong, we can begin to think anew about how we can set things right. We can aspire once again.

This is a time to renew our faith; to recognize that citizenship is a call to service; and to remember that ours is a nation of aspiration. We can bemoan the past. Or we can shape the future. As Amanda Gorman put it so beautifully, “we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.”

Yosie Levine is the Rabbi of The Jewish Center in New York City.

Avi Weiss: “No one has a monopoly on loving America”

Rabbi Avi Weiss

President Joe Biden’s call for unity is America’s tsav ha’shaah (mandate of the day).

What exactly does unity mean?

For me, it involves recognition that unity is not uniformity. Uniformity is becoming one by eradicating the other’s position: Unity is being one despite differences.

This involves drafting what can be called an “ethics of dissent” with emphasis on how we treat those with whom we disagree. I have sometimes fallen short of these ideals, but fervently believe they are worth reaching for.

Here are some humble suggestions:

• Placing priorities on listening rather than speaking, recognizing that we have much to learn from each other.

• When speaking, be careful with language. While a word is a word and a deed is a deed, words lead to deeds as we have so sadly witnessed.

• Whenever possible, avoiding negativity by focusing on who we are, rather than who the other is not.

• When criticism becomes necessary, addressing the issue and not the individual with whom we disagree.

• Instead of pointing outward, we should be pointing inward, with a self-critical eye. Each side must be calling out those on our respective fringes, who, through their extremism, have more in common than they think.

• Avoid painting the multitudes of the other side with the brush of those on their outer edges.

• Understanding that no one has a monopoly on loving America. Those with different political views love America as much.

The challenge is great and can seem overwhelming. Yet, as Rabbi Tarfon says in the Book of Ethics, “it is not for us to finish the task, but we are not free to stand by indifferently.”

Avi Weiss is founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat Rabbinical Schools.

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