(JTA) – President Barack Obama told rabbis in a pre-High Holidays call that Jews should share their story of working to advance civil rights as a means of inspiring change at a time of racial tensions. Speaking Sept. 26 with over 600 rabbis from the various Jewish religious movements, he was introduced by Rabbi Leonard Matanky, the honorary president of the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox umbrella.
“Rosh Hashanah is a time for reflection, and I’m not exempt from that,” Obama said in his opening remarks. “So, looking back on the last eight years, I’m both proud of what we’ve accomplished together, but also mindful of the work we have before us.” His brief opening remarks covered the $38 billion defense assistance package he recently announced for Israel and what he described as the success of last year’s deal between Iran and the international community. He also spoke of his administration’s efforts to combat antisemitism and its allocation of resources to assist elderly Holocaust survivors.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, asked Obama what meaningful action he would recommend to heal wounds stoked by centuries of racism. Obama recommended, among other things, registering voters, working with clergy in other denominations to reach out to racial minorities and advocating for better-trained police. The president said relating the story of the black struggle was key, adding that the Jewish community had a unique role. He said that telling the story of the Jewish role in the civil rights era was a means of inspiring change.
Obama referred to the opening on the National Mall last weekend of the Museum of African American History and Culture. “It is incredibly powerful that telling a story of both tragedy but ultimately triumph, and the Jewish community … played such a central role and continue to play such a central role when it comes to civil rights,” he said.