May 20, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Remembering Senator Joe Lieberman, z”l

As tributes pour in for the late Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, z”l, many in our communities are expressing how they knew him. Some shared a Pesach program or davened in their shuls or saw him dining out at kosher restaurants or on the streets of Stamford, New Haven, Riverdale, Washington, DC and Israel. My personal relationship with him spans a quarter of a century.

We all felt great communal pride when Lieberman was first elected to the Senate. Several years later, I randomly met and became friends with his wife, Hadassah, as delegates to the binational conference on women’s health care in Jerusalem in 1998, hosted by U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala and Israeli Health Minister Yehoshua Matza. I admit I didn’t know who Hadassah was for the first 24 hours, until a number of people including ADL President Abe Foxman, Congressman Henry Waxman and Congressman-elect and future Governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevic approached us in the hotel’s lobby lounge to send “regards to Joe.”

At another Shaare Zedek Medical Center event, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak was offering a toast to Shaare Zedek’s new Women and Children’s floor. Lieberman taught me how to hold one’s wine glass like an ambassador (out of the camera’s view).

On Erev Tisha B’Av 2000, I was in Stamford’s Italian American Center as the new vice-presidential candidate welcomed Al Gore to his boyhood hometown. After the motorcade sped away, 20 of us ran to the parking lot, switched to our non-leather footwear and gobbled pre-fast food in our cars. We didn’t make it to nearby Agudath Sholom in time for Eicha. So, we waited for them to finish and then held our own Eicha and Kinot minyan with Lieberman friends and family. We were not invited to the pre-fast meal at his mother Marcia’s home with Tipper and Al.

When Lieberman was running for president in 2003-2004, he almost always made it back to New Haven, Stamford or D.C. for Shabbat. In January, just before the New Hampshire primary, when Fridays are so short (and the temperature was below zero), there was a Saturday-night event at Congressman Tom Lantos’ daughter Katrina’s home. The campaign also arranged a Shabbat program at the Sheraton in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Participants were from all segments of the Liebermans’ lives. For me, it was the ultimate Shabbat experience. We gathered for a “family” photo just before candle-lighting.

For the next 25 hours, Candidate Joe became Shomer Shabbat Joe. We had davening and Shabbat meals, with zemirot and simcha dancing. We even hoisted Hadassah and Joe on chairs, as done at weddings. Riverdale’s Rabbi Yitz and Blu Greenberg were “scholars-in-residence” and Rabbi Deren of Chabad Connecticut offered divrei Torah. At our Friday-night oneg, Joe and his Jewish campaign staffers told us about the unofficial calendars of the campaign, from a D.C. area Jewish funeral chapel, because it listed candle-lighting times across America. I even learned a term the staff thought they invented. It was a high priority to know where the Liebermans would be “Shabbbating” each week.

It was Parshat Vayechi. I was given the Kohen aliyah. As I descended from the bimah, a candidate for president of the United States was called up for Shlishi. When he returned to his seat in the row in front of me, I commented that he should have been given the last aliyah because it was Chazak. Upon realizing the final pasuk of Sefer Bereishit begins, “VaYamat Yosef (And Yosef dies),” I quickly apologized that maybe it wasn’t the best aliyah for him. As Shabbat ended, we had a group Havdalah and they snapped back into campaign mode, speeding away. The rest of us had to get to the event without a police escort.

During several other trips to New Hampshire during that period, we got to campaign door-to-door with the presidential candidate. It’s much more common up there than in the New York area. There’s an old joke during every New Hampshire primary season. If you ask a local about any specific presidential candidate, the usual response is, “I don’t know; I haven’t met him yet.”

One other personal experience for me was making a shiva call after his mother, Marcia, died. I was in the Berkshires for July 4th weekend and drove back to Stamford just for the afternoon. It was their last day of shiva in Connecticut before finishing in Washington. I remember many deli platters from every organization you can name. I was expecting massive crowds. Actually, it was just a small group. Senator Lieberman looked around and commented how close his mom felt to each of us.

I am honored and happy I got to know him and his family well. He will be missed. Yehi zichro baruch—May his memory be a blessing.

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