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Why Rabbi Julie Schonfeld Saw ‘Lot of Familiar Faces’ at Historic DNC Benediction

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld watched Bernie Sanders speak to a restive Philadelphia crowd on Monday night on the monitors backstage at the Wells Fargo Center.

The executive vice president since 2009 of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents Conservative rabbis, Schonfeld was slated to follow Sanders with a closing benediction to end the first night of the Democratic National Convention.

Despite Sanders supporters’ persistent disruptions of speakers throughout the day, Schonfeld said that, when it came time for her to speak, she wasn’t worried about appearing before the boisterous audience.

“The feeling in the hall was that it really was moving towards a more unified spirit,” Schonfeld said, recalling the moment while driving home down I-95 the next morning. “I thought that Senator Sanders spoke very, very well. And really did a good job of trying to bring the delegates together.”

The first woman ever to serve as chief executive of an American rabbinical association, Schonfeld spoke at the end of an evening that was heavy on Jewish speakers, from Senator Al Franken to comedian Sarah Silverman, to aging pop star Paul Simon, to Sanders himself. Schonfeld’s benediction, delivered in English, drew on Jewish liturgy.

“God is the great, the mighty and the awesome, for God defends the cause of the widow and the orphan and loves the stranger residing among you,” Schonfeld intoned. “This is God’s greatness, and this is the greatness the American people must strive to imitate.”

Schonfeld delivered the benediction in her personal capacity, and not as a representative any organization.

Monday’s events proceeded shakily in their early hours, as Sanders’ supporters booed speaker after speaker. But Schonfeld said that, by the time her turn came to speak, the crowd seemed mostly mollified.

“The First Lady’s speech was fantastic,” Schonfeld said, referring to an address delivered shortly before Sanders spoke by Michelle Obama. “I get shivers even to say it now.”

Schonfeld said that, as she spoke, she recognized friends from the New York delegation, who had seats close to the front of the floor. “Funnily enough, in that great big room there were a lot of familiar faces,” she said. “I was just so honored really to be able to take part in this moment.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or follow him on Twitter, @joshnathankazis

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