“I’m so happy and relieved.” That’s how Rabbi Michael S. Beals unabashedly characterizes himself after the recent victory of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
But it’s not only his political orientation that accounts for the 57-year-old rabbi’s upbeat mood these days. Rabbi Beals, who is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington, Del., has been called “my rabbi” by Biden and made national headlines due to his close relationship and affinity for the former vice president, a lifelong Catholic.
In particular, Rabbi Beals has spoken extensively — including at last August’s Democratic National Convention — about Biden’s appearance in February of 2006 at the shiva of an elderly Jewish widow. At the time, Biden was the senior senator from Delaware; Sylvia Greenhouse had sent $18 to Biden’s campaign every election since his first U.S. Senate bid in 1972.
The minyan, led by Rabbi Beals, took place in the laundry room of Greenhouse’s senior living facility in the Wilmington suburb of Claymont. Her apartment was deemed too small for a shiva house, and Rabbi Beals said he was stunned to see Biden show up unannounced.
“There were no news outlets at our service that day — no Jewish reporters or important dignitaries,” Beals wrote in a fundraising appeal for Biden. “It’s just who he is.”
Jmore recently spoke to Rabbi Beals, a San Francisco native and 1997 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, about Biden’s victory over President Trump. Rabbi Beals came to Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation of more than 400 families, in 2004. He lives in Wilmington with his wife of 26 years, Elissa Green-Beals, and their daughters, Ariella and Shira.
Jmore: So how exactly did you become “Biden’s Rabbi”?
Rabbi Beals: I got invited to a Rosh Hashanah event at the vice president’s residence years ago, and at the party he was speaking and suddenly said, ‘Where’s my rabbi? Where’s my rabbi?‘ Then, his eyes locked on mine and everyone there looked at me. There were a lot of machers there and they had no idea who I was, so that was the beginning of it.
But I’m not powerful and haven’t got the president’s ear. He has claimed me as his rabbi, but I’ve never given him advice on anything like Israel or interfaith relations. I would love give him a blessing on Inauguration Day.
How do you describe the president-elect to people?
He’s loyal and humble and empathetic beyond belief. That’s the core of who he is. He takes his own tsoris [troubles] and uses it to help other people. Also, he’s very avuncular. He once saw me at a convention and came running over to give me a big hug, with all of these Secret Service agents running behind him. He’s just a people person, and he loves the Jewish community and Israel.
So is Biden, as they say, good for the Jews?
Absolutely. For one thing, he’s dripping with sechel [common sense] and speaks from a Jewish values script. In his Catholicism, his own values are ours as well. Joe gets it and is good for the Jews in every single way. He has a real love for the Jewish community, but it’s natural and he doesn’t pander. His views don’t change with the wind.
How would you characterize Biden’s relationship with Delaware’s Jewish community?
Remember, we go way back. He comes to all of our funerals and shivas and weddings and bar mitzvahs. There’s a thing called ‘the Delaware Way.’ We’re small, so we always try to build bridges and work together. That’s how he got his training. He remembers that the Jewish community here helped him get where he needed to get.
What would you say to Jews who are concerned that certain factions in the Democratic party might have a negative influence on Biden regarding Israel and the Middle East?
We’re really talking about maybe 1 percent of the party, three people in particular. We all have our meshuganahs. They may be meshuganah about Israel, but they also care about other values and issues like social justice. We just have to pull together.
I know that people on the right are saying these things, but it’s narrishkeit [nonsense] and plays on people’s fears and anxieties. It makes me shudder to hear people going to these base, reptilian parts of their brains to get Jews in a frenzy. But if you look at how many dollars he approved for Israel’s defense over the years, how dare someone say he could be influenced to be anti-Israel, or bad for the Jews? He loves Israel and was a confidant of [the late Israeli Prime Minister] Golda Meir back in 1972. It just frustrates me when people talk that way.
Have you been attacked for your public support of Biden by Trump’s Jewish supporters?
Some people have called me a kapo [a Jew who worked with Nazis during the Holocaust], which is a very powerful thing to say, and put quotes around rabbi when using my name. It’s just so nasty and treife, and we should know better because we’ve been victims of it ourselves as Jews.
And if I really have Biden’s ear — and I’m not saying I do — why would you want to alienate me?
How can Biden, and all of us, start the healing process in the Jewish community and across the nation?
It all comes down to achdut [unity]. We have to tackle all of the obstacles in front of us and put our divisions aside, and Jews need to lead the way. Unity is not a luxury but a necessity. I want to reach out to pro-Trump Jews and say, to quote Joe, that there are no red states or blue states but the United States. The coronavirus doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican.
We all have to become better listeners. I was with Joe after the George Floyd murder, at [a vigil at] the Bethel AME Church in Wilmington. I was the only white guy there besides Biden himself, and he was the best listener. Amazing. That was so empowering and validating for the Black leadership there.
I believe that Trumpy Jews feel the way they do because they feel like they’re not being heard. We have to do a lot of listening to people who didn’t vote the way we did. A lot of Americans buy into Trump’s message, so we need to listen better. We need to humanize each other.
As a Conservative rabbi, why do you think so many Orthodox Jews voted for President Trump, as opposed to non-Orthodox Jews?
I think that Israel is the number one issue for them, and that everything else is a luxury. They look at the existential threat. They care about Israel, but we need to broaden the agenda. Just because you move the [U.S.] embassy to Jerusalem shouldn’t mean you have us in the palm of your hand. Israel is a very important issue, but so is the environment and racial justice and COVID.
Are you worried about President Trump’s legal challenges to the election?
I’m not worried at all. I believe in the United States and its institutions that are in place. I think the institutions will work. It would be great to have a flow of information between the Trump and Biden teams during this period. We don’t want to have to lose one more life to the coronavirus than we have to.
Presidents need to be good role models and policymakers. We have to have a sense of patriotism in this war [against the coronavirus]. It’s all about pikuach nefesh [the preservation of human life]. I hate that my synagogue has not opened yet, but we have to do what we can during these times.
How do you explain the Trump phenomenon?
I think there were people who were having trouble making ends meet and who took a brick and threw it through a window and voted for Trump. They didn’t feel heard.
Also, sometimes it’s fun to stick it to people, and Trump represents people who have an issue with the authority figures above them and with political correctness. But I look at things from a Jewish historical perspective and see this all as a blip on the screen.
Do you ever get tired of telling the story of how Biden stopped by the shiva house of Sylvia Greenhouse?
No, but I’m tired of having to tell people that it’s a real story. People have written me and asked if it’s fake news. Why would I make it up? I didn’t say he walked on water, but I do believe there is a correlation between character and policymaking. It was a big deal.
Have you been criticized by some of your congregants for speaking about politics in the public arena?
I never talk about this from the bimah. That’s not why my synagogue hired me. They hired me for my ordination. What we say personally is one thing, on the bimah is another.
But when Trump did awful things, I did speak [on the bimah] about our values. But I did not mention him by name.
None of my congregants ever came up to me and complained. Delaware is a shtetl. This is Wilmington, not Baltimore or New York or Los Angeles or Philly. These people remember that Joe was at Sylvia Greenhouse’s shiva. We play well together here.
What is the story behind the photo of you and Biden floating around on the Internet?
When Biden was a senator, I was at the bar mitzvah of a donor of his. Because I grew up in southern California, I’ve always known to leave celebrities alone and treat them like anyone else, so I didn’t bother him. But at one point, Joe came over like a puppy dog and said, ‘Hey Rabbi, don’t you wanna take a photo with me? It’s no bother!’ He just wanted to engage in a very positive way. I think that says a lot about him.
Do you think you’ll see a lot of the president-elect in the future?
Maybe. It all depends on what his needs are. But maybe. I certainly hope so.