Delaware rabbi with ties to Biden to make DNC appearance

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Biden 'is "mamash" (truly) good for the Jews,’ Rabbi Michael Beals tells JI

(Democratic National Convention via AP)

Former Vice President Joe Biden smiles after the roll call vote during the second night of the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.

Many in the Jewish community have heard the story, shared by Delaware Rabbi Michael Beals, of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden making a shiva call to the family of a woman who was a loyal, low-dollar supporter of his for decades. On Thursday, the story will be told to audiences across the country during the final night of the Democratic National Convention.

This is the story as told by Beals, 57, in fundraising emails, introductions and now in a campaign commercial airing in more than a dozen swing states: In 2006, then-Senator Biden visited a shiva house for Sylvia Greenhouse, a Delaware woman who cut Biden an $18 check for his first Senate campaign and continued to do so every six years. 

Beals, who has served as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington, Delaware, since August 2004, was reciting Kaddish in the laundry room of the senior living facility in Claymont — because Greenhouse’s apartment was too small to accommodate the 10 supplicants required for a minyan — when Biden stepped in. When the service concluded, Biden told the rabbi: “Listen, back in 1972, when I first ran for Senate, Mrs. Greenhouse gave $18 to my first campaign. Because that’s what she could afford. And every six years, when I’d run for reelection, she’d give another $18. She did it her whole life. I’m here to show my respect and gratitude.”

Beals uses this story to point to Biden’s empathetic character. “There were no news outlets at our service that day — no Jewish reporters or important dignitaries. Just a few elderly mourners in a basement laundry room,” Beals wrote in a fundraising pitch for the Biden campaign during the primary season. “Joe Biden didn’t come to that service for political gain. He came to that service because he has character. He came to that service because he’s a mensch.”

On Thursday, Beals will tell the story to millions of Americans tuning in to watch Biden deliver his acceptance speech from Wilmington. Beals will be part of an introduction video titled “I know Joe.” 

Beals told Jewish Insider in a phone interview on Wednesday that the story shows Biden’s “multicultural competence, empathy, gratitude and humility.”

“He is ‘mamash’ (truly in Hebrew) good for the Jews,” the rabbi emphasized. “He’s not treif.” 

On Israel, Beals said Biden’s longstanding record of supporting the Jewish state stands in sharp contrast to President Donald Trump’s Middle East policies. “You can actually trace his record because it’s out there for you — in terms of funding and support,” Beals explained. “The stuff that was passed, economically, during [the Obama-Biden administration] was so fundamentally game changing for Israel. Moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem didn’t change the life of the average Israeli. It sure made them feel good, gave them nachas, but it didn’t change their life.” 

Beals told JI that he personally experienced the lifesaving effect of the Iron Dome defense missile system — funded by the Obama administration — when he visited Israel with his family in 2014. Beals and his family were at the Ramat Gan Safari Park when rockets were launched from Gaza toward the Tel Aviv area. The only shelters were two nearby restrooms. Beals said he and his daughter watched an Iron Dome battery destroy the missile in the sky above them. “It was that Iron Dome that saved my life,” Beals said. “So I feel that I owe my life and the life of my wife and children directly to Vice President Biden and President [Barack] Obama.” 

Beals describes his relationship with Biden, which mostly involved written correspondence, as casual, but close enough to garner an invitation to the annual pre-Rosh Hashanah receptions at the vice president’s residence. Most recently, Beals spoke at a roundtable hosted by the former vice president with faith leaders at the Bethel AME Church in Wilmington after the killing of George Floyd. 

Rabbi Michael Beals and former Vice President Joe Biden. (Courtesy)

Biden’s sustained outreach to communities in his adopted state has not gone unnoticed. “He’s very nice and very loyal to Delaware,” Beals said. “Delaware is like a little shtetl. He feels such a sense of gratitude, indebtedness and loyalty to the Jewish community. It’s extraordinary.” Beals added, “As good as the African Americans feel about him, and they do, the Jews should feel even more so. I would say that the Jews were responsible for his start, and the African-American community was responsible for saving his presidential bid.”

Beals shared with JI a handwritten letter he received from the former vice president after the death of his son, Beau, in 2015. 

“You are ‘my rabbi’ and my friend,” Biden wrote in the letter, which was a response to a letter Beals sent urging him to run for president. “Looking back on my time in public office I can say without fear of contradiction — the Jewish community in Delaware and around the nation has not only been the source of undying support, but the source of my public education,” Biden wrote. “I’ve had the great honor to meet and be mentored by so many remarkable women and men from ‘Golda [Meir]’ to ‘Elie [Wiesel].’ I am indebted to you and to the community in so many ways. You are familiar with the Talmudic saying, ‘What comes from the heart enters the heart’ — your sentiments entered my heart. Keep the faith!”

Marking three years after the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Beals pointed to Trump’s response to protests as a reason to choose Biden at the ballot box. “I’m not saying Trump is antisemitic,” he said, “but Trump inspires antisemites because of his rhetoric and language. I would say that his language and the way he carries himself will bring misery to the Jews.” 

The Jewish Democratic Council of America is already using Beals’s “shiva story” in a six-figure digital ad buy to appeal to independent Jewish voters in close to a dozen swing states. The ad, titled “We Need a Mensch in the White House,” will target voters identified by the Jewish Democratic group as undecided independents. “This story embodies Joe Biden’s compassion and empathy and the fact that he truly is a mensch,” JDCA’s executive director Halie Soifer told JI. “We are targeting Jewish voters where we know it will make the biggest difference in helping Dems win back the Senate and White House.”

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