Obama to deliver rare synagogue address

US president taking part in ‘solidarity Sabbath’ with foreign governments in stand against growth of anti-Semitism.

May 21, 2015 22:15
3 minute read.
Barack Obama

US President Barack Obama. (photo credit: REUTERS)

WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama will offer remarks at the pulpit of Congregation Adas Israel in Washington on Friday morning, delivering what will be a rare speech from a sitting president to a synagogue.

According to White House officials, the president’s remarks, in celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month, will focus on the contributions of the Jewish American community to civic life in the Unites States.

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The speech provides the president with a rare opportunity to detail his response to the rapid growth of anti-Semitism in Europe. He is expected to speak extensively on the threat and his administration’s efforts to combat it, aides said.

Since last autumn, the White House has been in conversation with the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice advocacy group over its efforts to coordinate a “solidarity Sabbath” during which over two dozen governments plan on taking a stand against the rising tide of anti-Jewish vitriol.

The initiative takes place on Friday, May 22, marked in various ways across Europe and the Americas. French officials plan to take to social media as Washington’s ambassador hosts an event at the embassy in Paris; the president of Romania is to attend a service; the Spanish government is hosting a luncheon; Greece is launching an educational program, and Cyprus is to release a presidential proclamation.

“We’ve been working with the White House for a considerable period of time, and to their credit, I don’t think there’s any doubt that this administration takes the rise of anti-Semitism very, very seriously,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation and chairwoman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“The purpose is to push back against, really, unashamed anti-Semitism with an expression of solidarity,” Swett said.

Four months ago, Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, offered brief remarks on this very topic at a vigil honoring the victims of the attacks in Paris, which targeted a newspaper and a kosher supermarket. The vigil was also held at Adas Israel.

“The violent assault on the Jewish community in France that took place on Friday afternoon – as the Jewish community in Paris was in the final hours of preparing for the restfulness and peace of the Sabbath – was the latest in a series of troubling incidents in Europe and around the world that reflect a rising tide of anti-Semitism,” McDonough said at the time.

Swett said it was a “delightful” coincidence that the date they chose for the event, many months ago, coincided with Jewish American Heritage Month.

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida), founder of that annual federal holiday, hailed the event in an email on Wednesday.

“It is always a great honor for the president of the United States to celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month, and to highlight our community’s contributions to centuries of American life,” the congresswoman said. “The president’s policies are driven by values that the vast majority of American Jews share, and especially during this 10th anniversary of our national commemoration of JAHM, I am looking forward to the president’s message.”

Greg Rosenbaum, chairman of JAHM, said his team had conducted research in recent days on the historic nature of the event. Their findings indicate that Obama’s remarks will mark the fourth such speech in a place of Jewish worship in American history.

“It’s so rare that a sitting US president speaks from the pulpit at a US synagogue,” he said.

Rosenbaum expects the president to speak briefly of “the elephants in the room” – tensions over his policy on Iran and its nuclear program, as well as the policy gap between the US and Israeli governments on Palestinian statehood.

“I’ve had the opportunity to meet with [Obama] in small groups,” Rosenbaum said. “I hope that he simply says in a public setting what he says in private settings.”

One of Washington’s oldest synagogues, Adas Israel had President Ulysses S. Grant present for the laying of its cornerstone in 1876. Its membership identifies as Conservative.

Obama’s speech will be streamed live at 11:00 am. EST (6:00 pm in Israel) on JPost.com.

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