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CAMPAIGN 2000

Jews Find Much to Praise in Gore's Choice

Running mate: Seeing one of their own in line to be vice president shows how far the nation has come in accepting all religions, leaders say.

August 08, 2000|DUKE HELFAND and T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

From the kosher restaurants of Manhattan's Upper West Side to the corner shuls of Los Angeles' Pico-Robertson district, conversations on Monday turned to a single thought: He's one of ours.

American Jews awoke to a thrilling, if unexpected, piece of news that Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut had been selected as Al Gore's running mate.

Religious and nonreligious alike used words like "historic" and "epic moment" to capture what few thought they would see in their lifetimes.

"Pride is the operative word," said John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

But the pride came with a sense of jitters that many conceded reflected a quintessentially Jewish trait. Some worried that Lieberman's selection could bode ill for a community that has grown accustomed to feeling safe. Some pondered whether Lieberman as vice president would unleash latent anti-Semitism. Others asked, quietly, whether Lieberman would find himself in danger.

"Those of us who have a longer look at Jewish history recognize there are potent forms of anti-Semitism that lurk just beneath the surface," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute at the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.

"He certainly is going to provide cannon fodder for those who see too much Jewish influence in the world arena," Adlerstein added. "I am proud of the choice, but I will pray like the dickens for the health of Al Gore."

Many see in Lieberman the ultimate expression of Jewish integration into the mainstream of a country that has afforded more freedom than Jews have known in their 5,000-year history.

"What happened today represents another major step in the political maturation of America," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Yet the choice also resonated with personal meaning for Jews themselves, many of whom have spent lives trying to fade into the fabric of their American homeland.

The rise of Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who strictly observes the Sabbath, shows that success in American life does not mean assimilation at all costs, several Jewish thinkers said.

"Gaps can be bridged. Joseph Lieberman is proof in the flesh that it can be done," said David Weissman, supervising rabbi at Levana Restaurant, a posh kosher eatery near New York's Central Park. "I think it's in the spirit of America that it should be that way."

Lieberman's devotion to his faith could ultimately play to the Democrats' favor when November rolls around, some predicted. Jews and non-Jews alike saw an affinity between the senator and America's core--those who hold faith and God above all.

Some Christian conservatives, for example, cited Lieberman's deep faith, strong morals and early condemnation of President Clinton during the Monica S. Lewinsky affair as they strongly praised Gore's choice.

Many said Lieberman's reputation as a man of good character and integrity will have appeal to middle-of-the-road voters. They said Lieberman represents a peer with similar principles, if not theology, who would help Gore distance himself from lingering distaste over various White House scandals.

"Most evangelicals, and certainly Jerry Falwell, are not looking for a Sunday school teacher to be president," said the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of Moral Majority. "They're looking for a man of moral and ethical character."

Many Christian conservatives are prominent supporters of Israel and see the Jewish faithful as religious brothers who share a fundamental set of values, although they do not believe in Jesus Christ as God.

Indeed, several evangelicals were careful to draw a distinction between Lieberman's religious views, which they praised, and his political philosophy, which they condemned.

"American evangelicals . . . vote for the candidate who holds their convictions," said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of the most influential fundamentalists in the nation. "Sen. Lieberman is solidly aligned with the policies of the Democratic Party."

Throughout Southern California, Jewish leaders felt galvanized by the choice of Lieberman.

"When I heard about it this morning, I said: 'It's about time,' " said Reform Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark of Buena Park, a rabbi at Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada and past president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. "Jews came to America along with Christopher Columbus. It's not as though we're newcomers on American shores."

Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, the largest synagogue in the San Fernando Valley, called the selection "one of the great tributes to the democratic process and to this country that religious preference, race or gender no longer stand in the way of people who want to serve their country to the best of their ability."

Jewish leaders took heart in the selection, given that the Jewish community accounts for only about 6 million people, a sliver of the nation's overall population.

"I think it's a vindication of the American ideal of pluralism that such a thing is possible," said Rabbi Nachum Braverman, executive director of Aish HaTorah, a Los Angeles Orthodox synagogue. "How it plays out in the selection remains to be seen, but it is a credit how far this country has come to being a country of all its citizens, regardless of their religion."

*

Times staff writers John J. Goldman and Elaine Gale and correspondents Rob O'Neil and Katie Cooper contributed to this story.

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