Remarks During a Videoconference on the Jewish High Holidays
Well, thank you very much. I should start off with a bit of an apology. When I was Vice President, for 8 years I had a celebration at my home—my temporary home of the Vice President's Residence—and I had planned on doing that here at the White House, but for COVID. So, next year, I hope. Next year. Not only next year in Jerusalem—[laughter]—but next year at the White House, God willing.
And let me say, Rabbi: Thank you for the introduction. And I also want you to thank the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Rabbinical Council, and the—Council of America—and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association for cosponsoring this call. Rabbi, I just want to thank all of you—each one of you—for spearheading this effort.
Look, it's always great to see my friend, Michael Beals. I spent an awful lot of time—they began to worry—I spent more time at Beth Shalom, but I always went to mass first. I always went to mass first. You think I'm kidding; I'm not. But I want to thank you for the beautiful opening prayer and for your friendship.
As many of you know, as I said—when Jill and I used to host everyone at our temporary residence—our public housing we had at the Naval Observatory for the High Holidays, of course—we served apples and honey and—as a sign of America's capacity to change and progress. I'm proud the Naval Academy—the Naval Observatory, once head of the Naval—the Chief of Naval Operations—is now occupied by Vice President Kamala Harris and the Second Gentleman, Doug Emhoff.
Look, while the season of awe is a sacred time for Jews here in America and around the world, the message of the holidays, I've always believed, is universal. Renewal. Renewal. When I was running for President, I placed the idea of renewal at the center of my campaign. I said my mission was to restore America's soul. I got criticized for that, but I meant it in a literal sense. We seemed to have lost our way. We lost the—a sense of comradery. We treated each other so harshly, the way we spoke of one another and the way in which we dealt with politics.
And I thought it was essential because, you know, America is an idea; it's an idea that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, et cetera. No other country has been based on that notion. And when we stop respecting one another, that all begins to change.
You know, Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe present us with a chance to restore our souls: our own souls, our individual souls. And the High Holy Days also allow us to take collective responsibility for renewal. I happen to be a practicing Catholic, and one of the things I like about my Pope today is that he's all about renewal and forgiveness. That's what he's about. And I look forward to—I hope I'm going to get to see him in the not-too-distant future.
But you know, I think that—I think the world is starting to realize what's been missing of late. Not only do we have to look inward, we also need to look at each other and talk to each other, rebuild communities through empathy and acts of kindness and decency.
You know, we need to look outward to bridge the gap between the world we see and the future we seek. And that gap, that chasm seems to be widening rather than narrowing. And the work of our renewal is front of mind as we take pride in the progress so far and acknowledge the immense challenges that remain.
You know, when I took office—took the oath—we were on—in the depths of a once-in-a-century pandemic. And today, though we still face a long road ahead, thanks to the miracles of science and medicine and the dedication of so many, we've vaccinated tens of millions of Americans, and hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved. We're going to emerge from this pandemic, but we just have to—we have to focus more.
When my Presidency began, we saw millions out of work and long lines at food banks. I mean, I never thought I'd see a time when people were lined up for a better part of an hour or more in nice-looking automobiles, just waiting for a box of food to be stuck in their trunk.
And now we've created millions of jobs. We're lifting millions of children and families out of poverty, and building our economy back better. But you know, we'll continue to confront other societal challenges as well, like the scourge of anti-Semitism. It remains all too present today.
You know, I had a chance to meet with the new Prime Minister of Israel. He's a gentle man. He's—we talked about how his—he has much more conservative views on matters in the Middle East than I do, but he knows, as he pointed out—he said, "You've met every single Prime Minister, and you've known them since Golda Meir."
And I told him something Golda Meir said to me after a long—it was after the Six-Day War. And I was in her office, and she had an assistant sitting next to me in the front of the desk, a guy named Rabin. [Laughter] And she was leaning back, and she had that—on the back of her wall she had these maps that you can pull up and down, you know? And she kept pulling the maps down and showing me how many people have died and what happened and so on and so forth.
And I would—by the time we got finished, she said all of a sudden, out of the blue—she said, "Would you like a photograph?" And I looked at her, and I said, "Well, sure, Madam Prime Minister." And she knew I had been a bit of a student of Israel and I distinctly—I was raised by a righteous Christian, a father who—who made sure that we had dinner where we incidentally ate, and we talked. And my father was the one who was—would rail against the fact that—what—we didn't bomb railroad tracks in World War II and all—I know Michael knows this.
And what I've done since I became an elected official: On my 16th birthday of each of my children, I put them on a plane and take them to Europe. And the first stop I've taken them to was to go into one of the concentration camps, because I wanted them to see how this can happen again. I wanted them to see, as that—as, you know, Auschwitz and other places. We didn't—that's not where I took the first one.
And the sign over the gate, you know, "Your work will set you free," et cetera. And visit where the chambers were—the gas chambers. And right next to it and along the fence line were these beautiful homes that had tile roofs. And everybody pretended they didn't know what was going on. You know, the—and so my dad's notion was always that, you know, you've just—we've just got to keep remembering. And I've taken every one of my children and now my grandchildren. I got two grandchildren left to take.
And the point I'm trying to make here is that I used to think coming out of the civil rights movement and being involved in the Jewish community as a kid and the civil rights movement—in Delaware—I used to think that hate could be defeated, it could be wiped out. But I learned a long time ago, it can't. It only hides. It hides. It hides under the rocks. And given any oxygen at all, it comes out. It's a minority view, but it comes out and it comes out raging.
And it's been given too much oxygen in the last 4, 5, 7, 10 years, and it has seen itself, whether it was—I remember spending time at the—you know, going to the—you know, the Tree of Life synagogue, speaking with them—just—it just is amazing these things are happening, happening in America.
And I guess the point I want to make is that it just shows that if we walk away from "Never Again," it's going to happen again. It can't happen again. And so I guess the point I'm making is that the attack in Pittsburgh, those attacks—all anti-Semitic attacks—aren't just a strike against the Jewish community; they're a strike against the soul of our Nation and the values which we say we stand for. No matter its source or stated rationale, we have to and will condemn this prejudice at every turn, alongside other forms of hate.
But you know, it's time that we deep—we be deeply mindful of a world beyond our borders, even as we did what was necessary and right to end 20 years of war in Afghanistan. And we mourn all those who we lost, including 13 brave servicemembers who were killed alongside so many other innocents in an act of terror and malice.
And in spite of welcoming the stranger, we now embark on the next phase of this mission, which is the cause that the Jewish community so often led. Whether it was Soviet Jews coming to America or Ethiopian Jews headed to Israel, we have to integrate these newcomers and help them begin to renew and rebuild their own lives.
And this New Year, we're going to have to remain steadfast in our pursuit of peace. We never waver in our support for the future security of the State of Israel. Because I told you, when I met Golda Meir, after she was going through that, flipping the maps up and down, she said, "Would you like a photograph?"
The part I didn't tell you: We walked out, and we stood in that hallway many of you have been. And we stood there, and there were camera people and—while I was having our photographs taken. And she—without looking at me, she said, "Senator, you look so somber. Don't worry." And I—without looking at her, I said, "I am very worried, based on what you just told me." She said: "No, no. We Jews have a secret weapon in our fight with the Arabs." And I turned and looked at her.
It's a true story, and I've written about it. And she said, "We have no place else to go." "We have no place else to go." Well, the truth of the matter is that's probably true, but it's so sad. And we have to make—we have to continue to fight like hell to make sure there's—any place can be gone.
We're going to maintain those deep bonds that started at the birth of the Jewish state, a bond I'm honored—I had the honor of renewing with Prime Minister Bennett at the White House last week.
The challenges before us, I think, are monumental. But if Jewish history and tradition teaches us anything, it's the resilient belief in the promise of tomorrow. Even after the worst destruction and pain, the Jewish people have recovered, rebuilt, emerged stronger than before, and we—so must we.
And may God inscribe each of us in the Book of Life. And I hope you all have a happy and healthy and sweet New Year. Shanah Tovah.
But you know, here's—I want to say one more thing. I just want you to know that—and there is hope for some religious collaboration down the road here. As Rabbi Beals will tell you, my daughter married a Jewish young man. And I—you know, dream of every—every Catholic father that she marry a Jewish doctor.
But all kidding aside, he did—he's a great surgeon. And we wanted to have a coconfessional wedding, and everybody said, "What do you mean by that?" The rabbi will tell you, I contacted a friend of mine in Delaware, who's passed away—she was just an incredible woman—to find me a rabbi who'd come and preside in a Catholic Church, the oldest Catholic Church in the State, that I belonged to it, built in 1842.
And we had a chuppah on the altar, and we had a—it was co-officiated. Now, some of you aren't going to like this, but it was co-officiated by a Catholic priest as well as a Jewish rabbi. And I had only asked one thing. They asked me—and I arranged it—and I only asked one thing. There's a psalm based—there's a hymn—my favorite hymn in the Catholic Church based on a psalm, and it's a psalm that talks about life. And so I asked if that psalm, that hymn in the Catholic Church.
And it says, "May He lift you up on Eagle's wings and bear you on the breath of dawn, and let the light shine upon you," et cetera, and—"and hold you in the palm of his hand." And they played—and I'm—my mind is going blank now. What's the song that is played where everybody is on the chair? Everybody, you know—what—I can't remember it. Anyway, and that's the song that was played. So, you know, I don't know what the hell is going on here. I just had one little favor, you know, just that they play "On Eagle's Wings."
But look, I'm taking too much of your time, but I really, honest to God, believe that we have a possibility—a possibility—to make things so much better, and we just have to believe it.
You know, I always am criticized by colleagues in the Senate because I'm always quoting Irish poets. They think I do it because I'm Irish. I don't do it for that reason, Rabbi—person; I do it because they're the best poets in the world. That's why I do it.
But there's a that—written by a famous Irish poet who said that—he talked about—about the future. And he said, "The world has changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty has been born." But it can be made beautiful. There's so much we can do. People are looking over the edge, and they're all of a sudden realizing we got to change. We've got to change.
And I'm not being solicitous, but I think the Jewish community is sort of the backbone of staying with what's right. And so I'm looking forward to continue to work with you. And again, happy holidays.
NOTE: The President spoke at 2:03 p.m. from the South Court Auditorium of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building. In his remarks, he referred to Mark Dratch, executive vice president, Rabbinical Council of America, who introduced the President; Michael S. Beals, senior rabbi, Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington, DE; White House Liaison to the American Jewish Community Chanan Y. Weissman; Pope Francis; David F. Murphy, associate pastor, St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Hockessin, DE; and Joseph M. Forman, rabbi, Or Chadash synagogue in Flemington, NJ. He also referred to his son-in-law Howard D. Krein.
Joseph R. Biden, Remarks During a Videoconference on the Jewish High Holidays Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/352102