Biden offers holiday greetings to Jewish leaders, questioned over visit to Pittsburgh synagogue

U.S. President Joe Biden may have gotten himself in hot water during a well-meaning teleconference with Jewish religious leaders in advance of the High Holidays on Thursday.

The teleconference was facilitated by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.

During the roughly 16-minute-long teleconference, Biden lamented the rise in anti-Semitism in the United States.

“The point I’m trying to make here is that I used to think coming out of the civil-rights movement and being involved in the Jewish community as a kid, and the civil-rights movement in Delaware, I used to think that hate could be defeated; it could be wiped out. But I learned a long time ago, it can’t. It only hides. It hides. It hides under the rocks. And given any oxygen at all, it comes out. It’s a minority view, but it comes out, and it comes out raging,” said Biden.

“And it’s been given too much oxygen in the last four, five, seven, 10 years, and it has seen itself, whether it was—I remember spending time at the—you know, going to the—you know, the Tree of Life Synagogue, speaking with the—just—it just is amazing these things are happening—happening in America,” he said.

“And I guess the point I want to make is that it just shows that if we walk away from ‘never again,’ it’s going to happen again. It can’t happen again. And so, I guess the point I’m making is that the attack in Pittsburgh, those attacks—all anti-Semitic attacks—aren’t just a strike against the Jewish community; they’re a strike against the soul of our nation and the values which we say we stand for. No matter its source or stated rationale, we have to and will condemn this prejudice at every turn, alongside other forms of hate.”

But Barb Feige, executive director of the Pittsburgh synagogue where 11 worshippers were murdered by a gunman in 2018, told the New York Post that Biden has not visited the synagogue in the nearly three years since the shooting.

In the teleconference, Biden first recalled his time as vice president—hosting High Holiday events at the Naval Observatory, the residence of the vice president—and apologized that because of COVID-19, he couldn’t host the religious leaders this year at the White House.

He made several mentions that he’s a practicing Catholic but said that the ideals of the Jewish High Holidays are universal.

“Renewal. Renewal. When I was running for president, I placed the idea of renewal at the center of my campaign. I said my mission was to restore America’s soul. I got criticized for that, but I meant it in a literal sense,” said Biden. “We seem to have lost our way. We lost the—a sense of comradery. We treated each other so harshly, the way we spoke of one another and the way in which we dealt with politics.”

Biden spoke about his interactions with former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in Israel during the time of the 1967 Six-Day War, taking his children and grandchildren to visit concentration camps in Europe, in addition to his daughter’s wedding to Howard Krein, a Jewish plastic surgeon from Philadelphia, in 2012.

The families wanted to do a joint Catholic and Jewish wedding, and Biden contacted a friend of his in Delaware who could find a rabbi to officiate a wedding in a Catholic church.

“And we had a chuppah on the altar, and we had a co- … it was co-officiated. Now, some of you aren’t going to like this, but it was co-officiated by a Catholic priest, as well as a Jewish rabbi,” he said.

He only had one request—that the Catholic hymn “On Eagle’s Wings” be played during the ceremony. Instead, he joked, they played a Jewish wedding song of a name he couldn’t remember.

“There’s so much we can do. People are looking over the edge, and they’re all of a sudden realizing we got to change. We’ve got to change,” he concluded after quoting an Irish poet. “And I—I’m not being solicitous, but I—I think the Jewish community is sort of the backbone of staying with what’s right. And so, I’m looking forward to continuing to work with you. And again, happy holidays.”

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