Joe Biden’s rabbi on his connection to Jews, leadership and Israel

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To really understand US President Joe Biden, his connection to the Jewish community, his style of leadership, and what it all means for Israel, you must start with “The Delaware Way.”

Historically, The Delaware Way means finding your very small self between much larger political actors, and finding a way of leading from the center.  It means finding common ground. The Delaware Way is about finding balance and respecting those with whom you differ.  To quote the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, The Delaware Way means “disagreeing WITHOUT being disagreeable.”

The Delaware Way goes all the way back to July 1776. The Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia to decide the matter of independence from Great Britain. Delaware was squeezed between  loyalists and separatists. The Delaware delegation itself was deadlocked. Enter heroic Caesar Rodney, who made the 80-mile trek, suffering from cancer, on horseback, in a thunderstorm from his Delaware home to Philadelphia to cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of independence.  It is the stuff of Delaware legend and has helped shape Delaware political culture.

During the Civil War, in the great battle between the North and the South, Delaware once again found itself between two radically different ideologies. Straddled atop the Mason-Dixon Line, Delaware was squeezed between the slave-holding South and the free North. As the second smallest state in the Union in terms of size (2,491 square miles compared with Israel’s “massive” 8,019 square miles – proving size is relative) and second smallest in population (995,764 compared with Israel’s 9,277,700) – Delaware and its political leaders have always needed to find a way to get along.

That fertile soil has produced an amazing Congressional Team, led by Senior Sen. Tom Carper and Junior Sen. Chris Coons (his seat was once held by Biden), and our lone member in the House of Representatives, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (the state’s first female and African American representative). Rep. Blunt Rochester sat on a very small committee that helped Biden choose then-Sen. Kamala Harris from California to be Biden’s vice-presidential running mate. Blunt Rochester also co-directed the Biden-Harris inauguration, and she will be the one to watch in the future.

Senators Carper and Coons, like Biden before them, are known for constantly striving to reach across the aisle to create bipartisan legislation. And all three Delaware Congressional representatives are strong advocates for bipartisan support for Israel that supersedes partisan division.

It is this rich Delaware political soil which has defined President Biden’s political life, beginning with his first campaign for the US Senate back in 1972, with strong political and economic support from Delaware’s very small but influential Jewish population (estimated at only 15,000 out of an overall Jewish American population of about six million).

In many ways, Delaware’s Jewish history reflects the history of Delaware itself.  The Jewish community of Delaware marks it beginning to 1875, with the founding of the religious-educational charitable organization, the Moses Montefiore Society. (This is the same Moses who lends his name to the windmill and first Jewish neighborhood outside of the ancient walls of Jerusalem, Yemin Moshe).

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The Wilmington Jewish community was founded because Jewish merchants found themselves squeezed between the much larger Jewish communities of Philadelphia to the north and Baltimore to the south. Just as the State of Delaware found itself between the North and the South and had to make its way, the same was true for the Jewish community. (For more information on the history of the Jewish community of Delaware, I commend the book, Becoming American, Remaining Jewish: The Story of Wilmington, Delaware’s First Jewish Community, 1879-1924, by Toni Young or consult with Jerusalem Rabbi David Geffen, co-founder of the Jewish Historical Society of Delaware).

Most, if not all of Biden’s early support in those early years of his political life came from Congregation Beth Shalom, my synagogue – which belongs to the centrist Conservative (Masorti) Movement.  In his first campaign, political opponents to the young Democrat falsely accused him of being antisemitic. Rather than take on the charge head-on and giving it more credence, respected members of the Jewish community, belonging to Congregation Beth Shalom, took out a full page of support in the state-wide newspaper, The News Journal, to make their point.

Aside from menschlichkeit, among Biden’s most cherished values is loyalty – NOT loyalty he expects from others, but rather, loyalty he extends to others from a place of gratitude. That is how I first met Joe Biden 14 years ago, when he was our Senior Senator. My congregant, Syliva Greenhouse, a woman of modest means, had died.  She lived in senior, subsidized housing in the Wilmington-adjacent and economically modest community of Claymont. I was conducting a shiva minyan in a ground floor common room because there was simply not enough space in Sylvia’s small apartment for a quorum of 10.

Towards the middle of my service, in walks a tall, head-bent Joe Biden, with a black kippah standing out atop his bright, silver hair. There were no assistants, no press – just Joe.  Rather surprised, after the last Kaddish Yatom prayer, I asked the senior senator what brought him to Mrs. Greenhouse’s shiva? And Joe replied, “Sylvia made donations of $18 every six years when I first ran for Senator, and during every subsequent re-election campaign.  I came to show my respect and to say thank you.”

There it is – Biden’s menschlichkeit, fueled by a certain sense of multicultural competency (after all, what does a nice Catholic boy know from shiva?), plus a huge sense of Delaware loyalty. In his most recent farewell speech, on January 19, where I gave the president-elect a farewell bracha (blessing), Biden said: “When I die, Delaware will be written on my heart.”

Biden’s loyalty to Delaware as a whole and to the Jewish community in particular goes a long way to explaining how I became “Joe Biden’s Rabbi.” Remember, Biden already had a strong feeling of gratitude and loyalty to the Jewish community of Delaware, which stood with him from the very beginning, as a young 29-year-old aspiring candidate for US Senate, running against a heavily favored incumbent, two-term Republican J. Caleb Boggs. A lot of that support came, and continues to come from my shul, 400-member Congregation Beth Shalom, celebrating its centennial in November 2022.

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After that original Greenhouse shiva experience, I found myself bumping into Senator Biden at shul simchas.  For example, there was one Saturday night bar mitzvah party reception where one of the “events” was taking your photo with Senator Biden. I am originally from Southern California, where we are taught to leave celebrities alone when they are out in public because they deserve a private life too.  So I did not approach the senator. Instead, Biden came bounding over to me, filled with enthusiasm, asking, “Buddy, don’t you want to take a photo with me?!”

“Of course I do,” I answered, with the same level of surprise as my original shiva experience. “I just didn’t want to bother you.”

“It’s no bother at all!” he replied. During our conversation, he told me how Delaware’s long-serving Orthodox leader, Rabbi Leonard Gewirtz, had been his rabbi. I explained to the senator that the blessed rabbi stopped serving in Delaware 25 years ago, and had passed away several years ago. “You need a new rabbi,” I told him.

Then six years ago, during a lavishly kosher-catered Jewish New Year’s Party for Jewish members of the Obama-Biden administration, Congress, as well as Jewish community leaders, hosted at the Vice President’s Official Residence, adjacent to the Naval Observatory in Washington, Biden gave a speech.

Going off script, he asked the question: “Where’s my rabbi?” He looked this way and that. I must admit, I too looked this way and that. Everyone did. Then his eyes locked on mine and he said: “THERE’S my rabbi!” And that’s how I got the title “Joe’s Rabbi.”

Biden’s representatives asked me to represent the Jewish community at the funeral of his beloved son, Beau Biden. Later, as Biden was running for president, other representatives asked if they could share the “Biden shiva story” with the larger Jewish community. I said, “Of course.”

There has been very little direct Biden-Beals communication, which is why I am a little sheepish being known as Biden’s Rabbi, because it suggests a certain level of regular rabbinical advice and communication which is not there.

However, there was one letter I wrote to him while at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Rabbinical Training Institute. In the letter, part of a late-night group therapy session, I told Biden that if it’s wrong to be prejudiced against a person’s gender, sexual orientation, religion, nation of origin – then why is it acceptable to be alright with being prejudiced against a person’s age? I went on to say that in Judaism, we equate wisdom with age, and that if we ever needed wisdom, it was now.

Finally, I told him that Moses was 80 when he led the people of Israel out of Egypt, which makes Biden, by comparison, a whippersnapper. Biden, who is now 78, didn’t tell me if he would run or not, but he did write a love letter to the Jewish people, a letter of thanks for the consistent support, an ode to lifelong friends like the late Golda Meir and Elie Wiesel, and a declaration that I was now HIS rabbi!

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I believe that Biden’s Delaware Way approach to politics means that while the new president will not pursue the Trump administration’s green light to an “anything-goes” policy regarding continued settlement expansion in Judea and Samaria, neither will there be a return to the alienation between leaders as experienced during the Obama-Netanyahu years.

Of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden was heard to say: “I LOVE Bibi, I may not always AGREE with him, but I love him.” As vice president, Biden showed Netanyahu that love and respect when, during a Biden state visit, the Netanyahu government announced new settlement expansion. Biden’s chief of staff suggested that Biden boycott a state dinner that Netanyahu was hosting as a sign of US disapproval. Biden rejected the idea. He said it would be “disrespectful to Bibi. We will go. I will tell him why it’s an awful decision – but over dinner.”

Biden has been loyal to Delaware for more than 36 years of service in the Senate. He has been loyal to the Jewish community for more than 44 years as both a senator and a vice president. He has been loyal to me, his Delaware rabbi for more than 16 years, and I dare say he will continue being loyal to the State of Israel from 1948 – the moment his father declared that the Irish Catholic Biden’s were “Zionists,” following the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel and revelations of the Holocaust, and he remains loyal to this very day as retold, year after year, at AIPAC gatherings.

Biden’s Delaware Way of leadership will bring the polarized United States back together, and who knows, maybe it can work for Israel as well?  ■

Rabbi Michael S. Beals is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington, Delaware

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