This afternoon, heading into Shabbat, President Obama gave a long-awaited address to a 7,000-strong crowd at the Union of Reform Judaism Biennial in National Harbor, Maryland. After arriving late—he was meeting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, though inevitably some joked that he had switched over to Jewish Standard Time for the day—the president stood up and said that he learned from his 13-year-old daughter how to give a bar mitzvah speech, and proceeded to do just that. As in, he actually gave a d’var Torah, talking about Joseph (complete with Andrew Lloyd Webber reference). Yes, “hineini”—“I’m here”—came up. So did his immigrant heritage. So did the tikkun olam. The lowest-hanging Jewish cultural buttons, in other words. The audience loved it.
His advisers have been suggesting such a peroration to a Jewish audience ever since his May speech calling for negotiating on the basis of the 1967 borders and the subsequent fallout. He couldn’t have asked for a better audience. This is the Reform crowd: the pre-game show was all about the history of the Religious Action Center and the crucial support Jewish activists lent to the civil rights movement—without which, Obama said, he probably wouldn’t be president. There was a warmup act of camp songs, which, as the delay wore on, extended to “Maoz Tzur” and “Great Balls of Fire.”
He discussed domestic issues like fair pay and he discussed Israel. But the overwhelming thrust was the journey—“journey” would dominate a word cloud of the speech—he has been on with this group since he first began to run for the White House.
In other words, this was the equivalent of a hometown speech. He gave a shout-out to AIPAC’s executive director, Howard Kohr, but also to NFTY, the organization for Reform teens. When I walked out, I heard one young man remark, “How about that shout-out to NFTY!” To which another young man replied, “I can’t wait to use that video clip.” Shabbat Shalom, bro.
Related: Disunion [Tablet Magazine]