I first met now-Vice President Joe Biden, then a candidate for Senate, in the
succa of Ruth and Bernie Siegel in 1972.
Biden was running against a long
term Delaware senator, and the Jewish community of Delaware wanted a new face in
Washington, DC. This aspiring young man was welcomed at every Jewish event
during the campaign season. After his election, he began his first term in
It was a pleasant surprise when I saw him again with 2,000
Delaware Jews at a Yom Kippur War Rally on October 9 1973. But more on that
From the moment Barbara and Richard Longwill pulled up next to me
as I walked to Beth Shalom synagogue on Yom Kippur morning, October 6, 1973, my
life as a rabbi changed considerably for the next few weeks. Barbara and
Richard, very close friends, stopped to tell me that Israel was enduring a
surprise attack by Egyptian and Syrian troops, the Yom Kippur
Richard’s cousin was one of the few tank commanders stationed right
on the Suez Canal under intense fire from thousands of Egyptian
Since they feared for his life, they gave me this young man’s
name and asked me to pray for him. Then they left, and I wandered, with my mind
elsewhere, for the final two blocks to the synagogue where I was the
When I reached the shul, Bernie Siegel was waiting for me. For a
number of years, he had been the High Holiday chairman for the
More importantly, Bernie and his wife were the leading Zionist
activists in Wilmington and the largest contributors of funds for investment in
Israel. They gave to the Federation, but they did much more because of their
love for Israel.
On that October morning, he made it clear an
inspirational message was needed during the services.
Rabbi Jacob Kraft, had a deep interest in Israel from his youth in Boston. The
sister of Leah, the rabbi’s wife, had made aliya 18 years earlier with her
family, and were living in Rehovot. It was only right that he should speak so I
readily bowed to my senior colleague in this instance.
His words sharply
pointed at “the traitorous acts of the Egyptians and Syrians attacking Israel on
the holiest day of the year,” and made everyone sit up and listen. When he spoke
that Yom Kippur, the hearts of all those present were stirred. When he said, we
all must do our utmost for our brothers and sisters, the 1,000 congregants
recognized he was talking to them.
Clearly, that was what Bernie Siegel
and other leaders of the Delaware Jewish Federation wanted to
After the services fraught with emotion, I learned that Tuesday,
only a few days away, had been selected for the giant community rally.
Wilmington Jewry had to do its share and do it without hesitation.
to admit that the news being carried on the TV was disturbing. It sounded like
the two attacking nations were going to tear Israel apart and murder as many
Israelis as they chose to do. The Security Council of the UN was quiet – not
really ready to act.
President Richard Nixon made some unkind remarks.
Only Henry Kissinger as the secretary of state and prior to that, a presidential
security adviser, was defending Israel on the TV, radio and in the
Most of the Jews in the US did not know what was happening except
to hear about the trials and tribulations of Israel in the war. American Jews
were nonplussed because Golda Meir was the prime minister, and Moshe Dayan was
the defense minister.
How could these two have failed to recognize signs
that the attack was imminent? Thousands of soldiers would ultimately die because
of the miscalculations of these Israeli leaders.
At a secret briefing for
community leadership, Tuesday morning, October 9, we heard about the Israelis
slowing down the Syrian tank convoys, but the Egyptians were still basically
The question was raised by many – what will happen to the
Israelis? Will they be annihilated? Irving Shapiro, only recently chosen CEO of
the DuPont company, calmed us all.
“Do you think that president Nixon
will permit his major ally in the Middle East to be destroyed?” he asked. “We
must look at these hostilities from a global perspective. Russia is
supplying Egypt and Syria and training them how to use the weaponry and the
planes. The US has assisted Israel in ways none of us even know about. America
will take a major step to insure that Israel does not lose.”
thought – he is the top man at DuPont, so we can trust him as his company
Then Shapiro added: “The Jews of this country have to collect as
much money as possible to care for Israel’s needs other than all the major war
From Saturday night, when Yom Kippur ended, until this
meeting, private solicitations had been underway so these major gifts could be
announced at the Tuesday night rally. The chair of the campaign, Gilbert
Spiegel, was already mapping out the 1974 Delaware funding process when the war
hit. His plans for 1974 were now transformed into “We Do our Share for Yom
Kippur War and 1974 too!”
A close friend, Richard Kane, president of the
Delaware Jewish Federation, was to be one of the speakers at the big rally on
When the meeting, mentioned earlier, was finished, Richard asked
me to stay so I could listen to what he planned to say. He and I had become very
close through the study of the parsha of the week every Thursday morning at his
office or mine. I grew to respect my answer – he agreed.
I listened to
his speech 40 years ago, and I recall that he was trying to cite too many other
people. I suggested that he use the word “I” more so the attendees would know –
this is what he truly believed.
He liked that and said that he would
makes the necessary changes.
Richard Kane really made a big hit at the
rally with almost 2,000 people present. Before the second speaker began, Senator
Joseph Biden rushed on to the stage. He was out of breath but asked the
president if he could say something. The atmosphere was electric.
Biden condemned these Arab nations for their surprise attack. They thought that
starting a war on Yom Kippur would give them the victory. How wrong they are as
well as their Russian overlords, he said with great fervor. The US will help
Israel triumph. And you my fellow Delawareans must do your share.
applause exploded from the audience and Biden waved to the crowd.
Spiegel, campaign chairman, concluded the event. He quoted Greer Fay Cashman, a
journalist who had phoned in a story to the Anglo-Jewish editors
“Israeli forces are outnumbered six-to-one, by the Arab
combined forces. The disproportionate ratio proves once again how the Biblical
David, today Israel, can still demonstrate its fighting supremacy over these
Goliath opponents” and then a pause, “with the assistance of world
“There has been no panic on the part of the Israeli population,”
he said proudly weaving his words with the text from Israel. “Blackout orders
have been scrupulously observed throughout the country and headlights have been
painted black. Windows have been taped so no shattering of glass in case bombs
fall. Streets are almost deserted – even in the evenings Israelis stay at home
listening to their radios and the one channel TV news.
sources are optimistic – Arab news provides a different story,” he
“From the frontlines, with shells exploding in the background,
the commentators broadcasting indicate that the Israeli forces are making the
Egyptian and Syrian armies realize that our troops will not be
His closing line – “I am asking all of you here tonight to be
moved and become defenders of Israel in your way just as the Israeli Army is
defending our nation with their lives.”
In the few days following the
rally, it became clear that Israel’s main problem was a shortage of armaments.
Russia was flying in military equipment to Egypt and Syria daily, but Nixon was
not making a move.
I recalled what Shapiro had said – the US would not
let Israel down. In this case an American Jew on the inside made it happen,
secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
He lobbied Nixon until the president
agreed to the airlift.
Tuesday afternoon, October 14, Bernie Siegel
called me. “Rabbi, do you want to take a ride down to Dover Air Force
“Why” I asked.
“You do not want to miss this,” he said
At seven in the evening we were admitted into Dover Air
Force Base by the MPs at the gates. We got into a line with other cars, and were
led to a spot near the large Starlifters and Galaxy Transport planes into which
tanks, artillery weapons, ammunition and other supplies were being
Still a bit quizzical, I asked Bernie – “Where is this going?”
With a smile and a tear in his eye, he remarked with confidence,
We should remember that the US airlifted, in the in the four
weeks that followed, 22,325 tons of military supplies to Israel.
made the difference, The Delaware Jewish Federation did its share raising a
million dollars, for the first time, in an emergency UJA campaign.