Most of the Jews in my former hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, as well as expats like me, would probably concur that President Joe Biden has shown up for them throughout his four-plus decades as Delaware’s senator — attending synagogue events, giving briefings on his many trips to Israel at the JCC, and even making unexpected condolence calls, such as at the shiva of my great-uncle Paul’s sister Sylvia.
But fewer know that the late Rabbi Leonard Gewirtz was the first to receive Biden’s sobriquet of “my rabbi.” Nor do they know of the student-teacher relationship between the Irish Catholic Biden and the Orthodox Jewish Gewirtz, who served as the rabbi of Delaware’s oldest synagogue, Adas Kodesh Shel Emeth, for a little longer than Biden served the state of Delaware.
Until this past August, I had only inklings about the strength and longevity of this friendship — even though Rabbi Gewirtz had also been my rabbi, and a pivotal force in molding my and my family’s religious observance. Gewirtz, who turned my family’s kitchen kosher, not only taught me Friday night zemirot, but also showed us that science and religion could coexist peacefully.
But I hadn’t known that Biden and Gewirtz had had their own deep discussions on faith until I watched a YouTube video of then-Senator Biden delivering an off-script eulogy about Gewirtz on the Senate floor in 2004, a year after the rabbi’s death.
He related a time that Gewirtz had walked in late to a talk that Biden was giving at a rabbinical school in Philadelphia, causing a murmur as Gewirtz’s shoes squeaked. But he told the crowd, “My rabbi has arrived!”
But what I found most surprising and moving was hearing Biden tell the Senate how Gewirtz had given him his “first tutorials” on Jewish topics, on theology and “quite frankly, the Holocaust.” And hearing Biden say how much he missed Gewirtz, with true emotion.
“It was poignant,” said Gewirtz’s younger son Yossi Gevir, who found the video of Biden’s speech only six months ago. Gevir, currently Director of Governmental and External Affairs at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, also had no doubt that Biden’s spontaneous tribute to his father was heartfelt.
“It was a real relationship,” said Gevir, who changed his last name when he made Aliyah in 1977. He speculated that the friendship may have begun in the run-up to Biden’s first Senate race in 1972, when rumors circulated insinuating that Biden was antisemitic.
Why this charge was leveled and whether it was merely a political tactic may be lost to Delaware history, but the Biden campaign staff took action. They reached out to Rabbi Gewirtz, as a respected Jewish community leader, and the rabbi made phone calls across the community, got a consensus of positive opinions about Biden being a “nice guy,” and issued a public statement refuting the charge — even though some of his congregants didn’t like it.
“The general feeling was ‘don’t get involved, don’t be too public.’” Gevir said. But he also reiterated that his father, who kept his political views private, “didn’t see it as getting involved in politics, but that he felt it was a matter of conscience. That it was a disservice to the candidate and to the Jewish community.”
Whether or not Rabbi Gewirtz’s intercession may have helped catapult Biden to victory, his election made a difference to members of the Jewish community, who noted Biden’s frequent presence at their events. Gevir didn’t learn until later that his father and the senator continued to chat by phone.
When exactly their teacher-student relationship began is hazy. What is clear is that they both enjoyed these conversations.
“My father loved to talk about God and religion and faith,” Gevir said, which was unusual at the time. And the relationship between these two extroverts was characterized by warmth and humor. In a 1988 letter to Gewirtz on the occasion of the rabbi’s retirement, Biden wrote:
“I know people think I’m joking when they hear an Irish Catholic refer to you as “my rabbi” but while I do mean it in good humor, I think you know that I mean much more than that. As a wise and generous man profoundly learned in the great tradition that lies at the foundation of my own faith, both by precept and example, you have many times been my teacher.”
Reading that letter, now safely in Gevir’s hands, I wonder what Rabbi Gewirtz would have thought about his former pupil becoming the president. Would he be pleased, surprised and maybe even a little proud? I also wonder if their discussions contributed to Biden’s decision to get into the race because of the “antisemitic bile” spouted at the Unite the Right rally.
I can’t help thinking that Gewirtz would be gratified by Biden’s continued commitment to fighting antisemitism and to upholding the commitment of “never again.”
Gevir, recalling how he had welcomed both Joe and Jill Biden during their visit to Yad Vashem in 2010, said that their Yad Vashem guide, an expert historian, had said that Biden was one of the most well-read statesmen on the Holocaust that he’d ever met.
Gevir had also spoken with Biden himself, several decades earlier. During that conversation, Biden told Gevir how he had come by his understanding of the landscape of Israel. Just like so many of his constituents who had learned everything they knew about Judaism from Rabbi Gerwitz, so had Biden. “I learned about this from your dad,” Biden told Gevir.
Marla Brown Fogelman has work in Tablet, the Washington Post, and other publications.