Jewish community gets on the Obama bandwagon

"There are more activities this inaugural than at least for last two."

obama lincoln memorial 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
obama lincoln memorial 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
President-elect Barack Obama completed his whistle-stop tour from Philadelphia to the US capital on Saturday night for his inauguration this week, where he is being greeted by millions of Americans, a packed schedule of festivities and even the occasional "Shalom!" Washington Jews - as well as thousands of Jewish visitors from coast to coast - are getting in on the inaugural action with activism, prayer services, and, of course, balls. Though the official swearing-in isn't until noon on Tuesday, the weekend witnessed a packed Jewish calendar, with more to come throughout the week. The highest-profile Jewish presence is set to come on Wednesday morning, when three rabbis from different streams will participate in the National Prayer Service. Rabbi David Saperstein, executive director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, will deliver a psalm, while Rabbi Jerome Epstein, director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Manhattan's Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun will offer responsive prayers. The service, as well as the inauguration itself, has run into some controversy on religious grounds. Some in the Jewish community were displeased that Rick Warren, an evangelical pastor from the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, the fourth largest church in the US, was chosen to give the inaugural invocation despite having made controversial comments about gays and Judaism, while others objected to the all-Protestant line-up of religious figures at Tuesday's event. Some groups even wanted the phrase "so help me God" stricken from the oath. The following day's prayer service at the National Cathedral has come under additional fire, with media reports that a Muslim scholar scheduled to speak at the event was the leader of a group that federal prosecutors said had ties to terrorists. Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, has been a guest at the State Department, Pentagon and the Democratic National Convention in Denver this summer. But federal prosecutors in Dallas have filed court documents in the last year linking the Plainfield, Indiana-based Islamic society to Hamas, though neither Mattson nor her organization have been charged. Linda Douglass, a spokeswoman for Obama's inaugural committee, would not discuss the case or whether the committee knew about it, saying "she has a stellar reputation in the faith community." Hamas, and Israel's war against the Islamist organization in Gaza, also surfaced during a Sunday pre-inauguration interview with Obama chief political strategist David Axelrod. When asked by CNN's John King about the incipient cease-fire, he reiterated the Obama administration's commitment to engaging with the region. "All of us are hopeful that a cessation of violence will hold," Axelrod said. "But the president-elect has said repeatedly that he intends to engage early and aggressively with diplomacy all over the world and using the men and women, the professionals who are in place, who are great, and, where appropriate, special envoys." Politics and Middle East policy are also making nominal appearances at Jewish events tied to the inaugural festivities, often in the presence of food, alcohol and schmoozing. The National Jewish Democratic Council and the new J Street Israel lobby are co-hosting breakfasts for their members to hear a few leading transition team and Middle East experts speak. The Jewish Grassroots Action Network, which was formed from the campaign activist group Jews for Obama, hosted a workshop reflecting on the lessons learned from the campaign and brainstorming on how to continue to push issues of importance. On Monday, several Jewish organizations are planning to participate in Obama's call for a day of service. The day is a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., and Jewish volunteers will participate in service projects ranging from voter registration to preparing food for a homeless shelter. "There are more activities for this inaugural than at least for the last two," said William Daroff, who heads the Washington office of the United Jewish Communities, which will be joining with other Jewish organizations to hold a reception on Monday afternoon. Daroff attributed the increased participation in part to Jews being overwhelmingly Democrat and therefore enthusiastic about ushering in the first Democratic administration in eight years. "Americans in general - Democrats, Republicans and Independents - are excited about the Obama presidency," he said. "The Jewish community is part of the general excitement about the inauguration of the first African-American, someone who is much younger and who has really captivated the American people, and someone who is legitimately a source of excitement for all Americans." Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, from the National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, also pointed to the bipartisan nature of the event at hand when explaining his decision to hold his first Jewish Inaugural Ball on Sunday night. "We're having a ball because whether or not one is Republican or Democrat, there's one commander-in-chief in this country and we have to recognize that we all want him to succeed, and we're celebrating and praying for the welfare of the government," he said, noting that he wasn't yet in Washington when the last inauguration took place four year ago. In addition to food, music and mingling, the ball will also feature a table where attendees can write letters of support to IDF soldiers and residents of southern Israel, as well as sell artwork whose proceeds will largely go to organizations helping Israeli soldiers. "It's hard to celebrate," Herzfeld said, "when our brothers and sisters in the Land of Israel are engaged in a war, so we want to make sure to incorporate that part in our celebration." AP contributed to this report.