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January 20, 2021 6:53 pm

Friends Highlight President Biden’s Longtime Relationship With Jewish Community

avatar by Yoni Wilkenfeld

Vice President Joe Biden and Rabbi Levi Shemtov, at a 2014 lighting ceremony for the National Menorah. Photo: Ron Sachs/CNP

The inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States was cheered by longtime supporters in the Jewish community Wednesday, who spoke of a “mensch” with a strong personal connection to their faith and concerns.

The second Catholic president in American history, President Biden will head a diverse administration, with a Cabinet that will include at least five Jewish members, if his nominees are confirmed.

Elected to the US Senate in 1972, much of Biden’s early Jewish support came from Philadelphia, a short drive from his home town of Wilmington, Delaware. 

“He’s got a great sense of Yiddishkeit,” said Stephen Cozen, founder and chairman of the Philadelphia-based law firm Cozen O’Connor and a top Democratic fundraiser during the 2020 campaign. “I’ve always appreciated his relationship with the Jewish people.”

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Cozen befriended Biden in 1976, and told The Algemeiner that the two have bonded over golf outings, spent Jewish holidays together, and talked often of their shared concern for preserving the memory of the Shoah.

“He was steeped in that history and heartbroken that it ever took place,” said Cozen. “He was a huge supporter of the remembrance of the Holocaust, as well as a huge supporter of Israel.”

Biden’s first foreign trip as a senator was to Israel, in 1973, during which he met with Prime Minister Golda Meir before the Yom Kippur War. Since then he has met every person to hold the office, through 36 years in the Senate and eight more in the White House.

When Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin visited Capitol Hill in 1982 and had a series of tense meetings, “the bitterest exchange” occurred with then-Senator Biden, who was critical of West Bank settlement policy, according to a New York Times report at the time.

Pro-Israel allies acknowledge that there have been policy differences between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During a 2010 visit to the Jewish state, he was famously angered by the announcement of plans for new housing construction in East Jerusalem, and sharply condemned the Israeli government.

Still, as vice president, he was often tasked with trying to build support — and sometimes to repair relations — with Jewish leaders on behalf of President Barack Obama.

At a ceremony in New Castle, DE, on Tuesday, he received a blessing from Wilmington rabbi Michael Beals, who has repeatedly told of meeting the president at a laundry room shiva call, for an elderly woman who had donated $18 to Biden every election cycle.

Known for a deep commitment to his own faith — the president swore the oath of office Wednesday upon a Bible that has been used in the family since 1893 — those who know him speak of Biden as knowledgeable about the particulars of Judaism.

“Joe Biden is not personally Jewish, he’s Catholic,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Executive Vice President of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) to The Algemeiner. “But I believe that the array of Jewish friends and supporters that he has amassed over time can give some support to the opinion that any decisions he makes will be made by someone who’s a friend of the Jewish people.”

Shemtov’s father, a prominent Chabad leader who lives in Philadelphia, used to join then-Senator Biden nearly every week on his Amtrak commute from the capital. His son remembers that when Biden was running late, a string of people across Union Hall station in Washington, DC would raise a signal to hold the train. 

“Five minutes after the train pulled out of the station he’d start rolling up his sleeves and schmoozing with the whole crowd,” said Shemtov. “He wasn’t trying to act like a regular guy — he is a regular guy.”

Years later, at a Capitol reception following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress in 2011, Shemtov ran into the vice president at the bar, and stepped aside to make way.

“Rabbi, you’re in my house now, and I’m Irish, so I’m going to pour you a drink,” he recalls Biden saying. “What would you like to have?”

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