Originally published in the New York Sun.
Driving to Lancaster from Philadelphia Friday afternoon, my wife and I passed through a town named Ephrata. It was named after the town that, in ancient times, was part of the city of Bethlehem; today it is a thriving Israeli city of 8,000-plus. Friends and colleagues who were meeting us in Lancaster passed towns named Bethlehem, Nazareth, Lebanon, and Zion. Early Pennsylvanians believed, as many modern ones do, in the Divine promise that the exiled Jews would be returned to the land of Bethlehem and Zion. How appropriate, I thought, to help usher in our Shabbat with Governor Palin, an American political leader who, more closely than many, identifies with the Holy Land, ancient and modern.
The Pennsylvania Family Institute, sponsor of the weekend event with Mrs. Palin, is a Christian conservative advocacy group whose positions on many issues are at odds with the liberal social views espoused by many American Jews. In other words, not the community with which one might expect Jews to be breaking challah. But the Institute’s web site raises concerns that many Jews share — that rapidly-rising rates of out of wedlock births, juvenile crime and drug use, and sexually-transmitted diseases are symptomatic of “a culture that is turning its back on the family.”
Independent-minded American Jews, like their Christian counterparts, are justifiably alarmed by these phenomena and are searching for ways to return stability and morality to American family life. It was in support of this goal that my organization, Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin, set up a Shabbaton — a Sabbath gathering for meals, songs, prayers, and conversation — with the assistance of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, to be a part of their weekend with Mrs. Palin.
By evening, the halls of the Hershey Lodge were filled with the aroma of chulent, the traditional Sabbath stew. More than 1,000 citizens came to the $200-a-plate dinner with the governor, including a small group whose members paid $25,000 each to sit at the governor’s table. Our Jews for Sarah tables included a cross-section. Some came from Philadelphia, Baltimore, or North Jersey, while others from farther afield. Dr. Joseph Frager, president of the Jerusalem Reclamation Project, made the drive from Queens. One participant flew in from London. Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin is not a Jewish religious organization, although many of our members are Orthodox. Most of the Shabbaton participants were Sabbath observers, although some were not. We even had several Christian supporters of Jews for Sarah, including Dr. Celeste Mattia of Philadelphia, and Dr. Richard Bishirjian, of Armenian Christian descent, who is president of Yorktown University in Denver.
Meeting Sarah Palin turns out to be not the kind of celebrity thrill one experiences by meeting, say, a member of the Rolling Stones. My wife and I found her unpretentious and gracious both, with an un-politician-like sincerity. She expressed gratitude for the work of Jews for Sarah. We brought a small gift for Mrs. Palin’s family, a video disc of “Praying with Lior,” the film about the bar mitzvah of a Jewish child with Down’s Syndrome.
My colleague Sheya, director of PalinTV, presented Mrs. Palin with the ArtScroll edition of Perek Shira, a commentary on the song of celebration sung by Jewish women during the exodus from Egypt. Mrs. Palin received the Hebrew volume with obvious delight; she has used the biblical Book of Esther as bedtime reading material for her eight-year-old daughter, Piper. She wants Piper to emulate Esther, Jewish history’s great heroine, who risked everything to save the Jewish people from Haman’s plan for genocide.
Although 65 years have passed since the Holocaust, the threat of genocide still hangs over the Jewish people — and again from Persia. Iran openly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Hamas, with its charter calling for the extermination of the Jewish State, fires rockets at Israeli schoolchildren. Syria races to build chemical and biological weapons to use against Israel. Mrs. Palin makes it clear that she recognizes these threats to America’s ally, Israel, and wants to end them. She minced no words in her remarks to the Pennsylvania Family Institute, criticizing the Obama administration for “coddling our enemies while abandoning our treasured ally, Israel.”
On her lapel, she wore a pin showing the American and Israeli flags intertwined.
As we enjoyed our Shabbat meal, we listened to Mrs. Palin’s references to “Judeo-Christian values” — a concept well understood by the deeply religious Christian audience with whom we shared the evening, including more than a few Amish ladies wearing their traditional bonnets. Mrs. Palin spoke of how the family is the building block of society and how strong families mean a strong nation. She did not suggest that Democrats do not share the attachment to family. But she warned that the most immediate threat to American families is the administration’s economic policies, which will burden our children’s generation with crushing, inescapable debt.
Mrs. Palin’s message is beginning to resonate among American Jews. I see it in the new open mindedness among friends and associates as they get to know Mrs. Palin. I see it in the response among American Jews to the articles and activities and website of Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin. And we can all see it in the new Pew Research Center survey showing 33% of American Jews now support the Republicans, an increase of 13 percentage points that is more than 50% higher than the 20% who identified with the GOP just two years ago.
But for the most part, our Shabbat with Sarah Palin transcended politics. It was a Salute to the American Family, an occasion for connection between conservative Christians and conservative Jews. It offered a chance to exchange a knowing look with the Hockey Mom from Wasilla, about our beloved special needs kids. And then she was gone, off with her “bodyguard Piper” to speak the next day before 300,000 at the Lincoln Memorial. For us it was a memorable and moving shabbat, full of songs and prayers, hearty food, and our plans and dreams for bringing back home the message of our American Esther.