OPINION: Joe Lieberman was a proud Jew who engaged with the world

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OPINION: Joe Lieberman was a proud Jew who engaged with the world

Dan Sacker reflects on precious time spent with the former nominee for vice president of the United States, starting from the moment he was offered an internship in Washington DC.

The first time I saw Senator Joe Lieberman was, typically, in shul. I had moved to Washington DC in September 2005 not knowing a soul to study for an MA in political management. As a way of trying to make friends, I had started going to shul each morning. Having risen to be Al Gore’s running mate on the Democratic ticket in the hanging-chad presidential election of 2000 (the first Jewish politician to do so), Senator Lieberman was a well-known political figure in Washington. As a 23-year-old Brit, I was in awe of him, but determined not to miss an opportunity to speak to one of my heroes.

After a couple of days, I plucked up the courage to chase him out of shul. It was a Sunday morning. “Senator Lieberman,” I called. Hearing my British accent, he stopped, turned around, smiled, and said: “Hey. What brings you to town?” I explained I was studying political management for a year. Then I asked what to me was the million-dollar question: “I wondered if it might be possible to come and get some work experience in your office?”

I had no expectation of a positive response, but I figured there was little to lose. So when he handed me his business card and told me to call his chief of staff who could see what was possible, I was shocked. A few weeks later, after a couple of interviews and a background check, I walked through the doors of Senator Joseph I. Lieberman’s Senate office and into my very own version of The West Wing.

I retell this story not to prove my chutzpah, but to demonstrate what a mensch Senator Lieberman was.

As a long-time student of American politics, he was someone I had admired from afar. He was a man who never compromised on his principles, and a rare breed of American politicians: someone who was domestically liberal but hawkish when it came to foreign policy. He was a passionate and powerful advocate for the State of Israel. Above all else, I admired him for the way he combined his deep faith in Judaism with his passionate commitment and devotion to public service.

This was evident in very public ways. On the wall of his Senate office was a large poster of an American flag upon which were printed the names of all those who were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attack. Standing upright on his desk was a siddur and a Hebrew Bible, which he regularly quoted from in his contributions on the Senate floor.

I admired him for the way he combined his deep faith in Judaism with his passionate commitment and devotion to public service.

During the seven months I interned in his office, there was a regular mincha minyan in his office. When absolutely required to do so, he would walk to Capitol Hill from his home in Georgetown if he ever needed to be on the floor of the Senate over Shabbat. He never shied away from his Judaism. Never shied away from defending the State of Israel. Never shied away from recognising and living up to his unique position in American public life.

Some years later in October 2015, while I was working for Rabbi Sacks, I accompanied him on a visit to New York. As part of the trip, we spent a wonderful dinner in the company of Senator Lieberman and his wife Hadassah. I had the privilege of watching these two towering figures of the Jewish world and public life in their respective countries, engaging in laughter and deep conversation about Judaism, politics, and the many challenges facing the world.

I remember thinking how lucky I was. Here were two people who epitomised the kind of Judaism I believed in, one that was rooted to our people’s history and traditions but equally committed to the world at large. It was a Judaism that saw the value it had to offer to contemporary life, but always recognising the fact that it was different, and celebrated that fact. I remember asking one of the other dinner participants to take a photo of the three of us, somehow knowing that I would not just want to remember this moment, but remember what these two individuals represented.

In Senator Lieberman and Rabbi Sacks, our world was blessed to have two leaders of moral courage who lived their lives in ways that we should all emulate

In a sense of tragic irony, I found out about Senator Lieberman’s passing as I arrived home from the inaugural Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks Memorial Lecture, brilliantly delivered by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown who spoke engagingly for an hour (without notes!) about faith, charity, and the need for, what he called, “a new age of hope”.

These were subjects that I know both Rabbi Sacks and Senator Lieberman passionately believed in.

When Rabbi Sacks published his Covenant & Conversation volume of Torah essays about ethics in 2016, we were considering who could write the foreword. There was one obvious candidate: Senator Lieberman, who eagerly agreed and wrote a masterful essay to open the book. In his acknowledgements, Rabbi Sacks wrote the following:

“I owe an immense debt of thanks to Senator Joe Lieberman, not only for his lovely preface to the book, but also for the way he and Hadassah have been role models in their life in the public square as well as within the Jewish community. They have been a kiddush Hashem. They have shown the moral beauty of our faith and its concern for justice and compassion, freedom and dignity, living all that I have tried to articulate in this book. Elaine and I cherish their friendship.”

In both Senator Lieberman and Rabbi Sacks, our community and our world were blessed to have two leaders of moral courage who lived their lives in ways that we should all seek to emulate, especially in today’s dark and challenging times. Ultimately, Senator Lieberman’s life contribution is best summarised in a passage written by Rabbi Sacks in 2013:

“In the 21st century, Jews will need the world, and the world will need the Jews. We will not win the respect of the world if we ourselves do not respect the world: if we look down on non-Jews and on Jews less religious than ourselves. Nor will we win the respect of the world if we do not respect ourselves and our own distinctive identity. Now more than ever the time has come for us to engage with the world as Jews, and we will find that our own world of mind and spirit will be enlarged.”

From the moment I first chased Senator Lieberman out of shul that Sunday morning in 2005, it was clear to me that he was a man who did just that. The smart thing would be for us to do likewise.

May his memory be for an eternal blessing.

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