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‘I went to shul more than most of you’: Biden hosts High Holiday reception

At White House event, US president jokes about his many visits to synagogue near his Delaware home, says lessons of Jewish holidays relevant to current state of the country

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

US President Joe Biden speaks during a reception to celebrate the Jewish new year in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff applaud at right. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
US President Joe Biden speaks during a reception to celebrate the Jewish new year in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff applaud at right. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

US President Joe Biden touted his Jewish bona fides at a White House reception for the High Holidays on Friday.

“I probably went to shul more than many of you did,” he joked after giving a shout-out to the current and past rabbis of Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington, Delaware where he used to live.

“That’s where I received my education,” Biden quipped amid laughter from the dozens of Jewish leaders in the East Room. “You all think I’m kidding.”

“I’m a practicing Catholic, but I — I’d go to services on Saturday and on Sunday,” he said, smiling.

Biden went on to call the Conservative synagogue “a home,” telling its clergy members present that “over the years, we’ve shared deep conversations about faith and — and finding purpose. And [you’ve] always, always, always been there for my family in the good times and not-so-good times.”

The rest of his remarks touched on many of the usual themes he relies on when speaking with Jewish audiences. He again recalled how former president Donald Trump’s remarks that there had been “fine people on both sides” in response to the march of Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville had been what drove him to run for president in 2020.

“The Jewish people know better than any what my father, who was not Jewish but would constantly use the phrase, ‘silence is complicity,'” he said, arguing that failure to speak out against antisemitism or attacks on democratic institutions places the future of the country at risk.

“We can’t remain silent. I mean this sincerely. If we let it go, democracy and everything else is at stake,” Biden asserted.

“The Jewish tradition holds that from the time the Book of Life is opened on Rosh Hashanah until the gates close on Yom Kippur, our fate hangs in the balance. It’s in our hands… to change, to do better to ourselves, for ourselves, and for others.”

“I believe we face a similar inflection point as a nation,” he added.

While he didn’t share his usual go-to story about meeting former prime minister Golda Meir and being assured by the Israeli premier that the Jewish state’s secret weapon in the virulent Middle East is that they “have nowhere else to go,” he did pull out the tale in a High Holidays greeting call with rabbis from across the country shortly after the White House reception.

Upon concluding his remarks at the White House event, Biden introduced Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman who played a moving rendition of Avinu Malkeinu for the audience.

Also in attendance at the East Room gathering were several Jewish members of Biden’s cabinet and over a dozen Jewish members of the Democratic caucus. Vice President Kamala Harris also joined the event along with Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, who offered brief remarks, recalling his Rosh Hashanah dinners at his grandmother’s Brooklyn apartment.

“I can still smell that brisket cooking — and burning — in the kitchen,” he joked. “I can still taste the slightly warm challah, but slightly stale on the table.”

“And, of course… my grandmother begged all of us kids not to jump on the couch because ‘I took the plastic coverings off!'”

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