I’ve been to many public and political events in my life, but this Wednesday’s was one of the most electrifying. It wasn’t because I was privileged to be at the swearing-in ceremony of America’s new ambassador to Israel at the White House. Nor was it because I got to be part of a historical moment presided over by the vice president of the United States, one of Israel’s greatest friends. Rather, what I will never forget about the swearing-in of David Friedman was how David, an orthodox Jew, took out his yarmulke, placed it proudly on his head, placed his hands on his Hebrew Tanach bible, and took the oath of office. In accordance with the strictures of Jewish law, he did not “swear” but rather “affirmed” the oath administered to him by the vice president.
And there it was. In the Indian Treaty Room, one of the most beautiful rooms of the White House compound, the United States had an orthodox Jewish ambassador to the world’s only Jewish state, a man who celebrates his Jewish observance as making him a greater American.
For the past few months I have watched David Friedman as he has navigated the turbulent waters of public life. I have watched him as he has been viciously attacked by people who know nothing about him. I have watched him in public settings and private surroundings. I have watched him praying the Mincha afternoon prayer in his lawyer’s office. I have seen him at his home interacting with his family. I have seen him in conversation with my children. And I saw him on his father’s yahrzeit, or death anniversary, as he movingly retold stories of his father’s American patriotism and love for Israel.
At all times I have seen a man of extreme warmth and humility, always accessible, always prepared to engage in conversation with those around him as equals, always bestowing dignity and worth on all he meets. I have seen him as a loving husband, doting father and adoring grandfather.
But above all else I have seen him as a proud Jew, someone who carries his Jewish identity with solid affirmation.
David’s swearing-in was his crowning glory — not because he became the representative of the most powerful man on earth to one of the world’s most important countries, but because he did so as a God-fearing man who stands tall with his Jewish religious faith, garbed in the destiny of his people.
I told David a few weeks ago that I have noticed a disproportionate number of Jewish leaders who were deeply influenced by their parents’ Zionism and commitment to the Jewish people. I did not know David’s father, Rabbi Morris Friedman, who had a community in Woodmere and who served as the president of the New York Board of Rabbis. But it’s clear from how David speaks about him that he was a giant of Jewish identity who dedicated his life to connecting Jews to their heritage and to a love of the eternal Jewish homeland.
At his ceremony yesterday, David spoke movingly of his parents and of his wife’s parents, “two of whom are no longer of this world.” Rabbi Morris, along with David’s father-in-law, Julius Sand, whom I knew well from my childhood in Miami Beach, no doubt took immense pride in heaven at David’s thrilling moment.
So what now of David’s staunch critics? No doubt in a short amount of time they will discover how misguided their attacks were.
My soul-friend of a quarter century, Sen. Cory Booker of my home state of New Jersey, was harsh on David at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing and ultimately voted against him, breaking with the Democratic senior senator of New Jersey, Bob Menendez, arguably Israel’s greatest friend in the Senate. I was a little surprised to see that Cory chose to use the teachings of Maimonides on repentance, which I had personally studied with Cory, against David. In telling David that an apology alone is not sufficient penitence, Cory’s words belied the righteous, philanthropic and communally engaged and family-oriented life that David has always led.
And hovering above yesterday’s swearing-in was the presence of President Donald Trump, the man falsely and scandalously accused of anti-Semitism who has now appointed an orthodox Jew as his ambassador to Israel, an orthodox Jew, Jason Greenblatt, as his chief Middle East negotiator, and whose son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, is also an orthodox Jew from a famously observant family. And, of course, so is President Trump’s daughter, Ivanka.
The Trump White House, of course, has its detractors. But the prominence the president has given to observant Jews is without precedent in American history and demonstrates to the American Jewish community, many of whom are, through no fault of their own, not connected to their roots, that Jewish observance is absolutely consistent with the highest levels of American public service.