Joe Lieberman: A Role Model for American Orthodox Jews

Senator Lieberman speaking at the Spanish and Portugese Synagogue in New York. Photo: Kruter Photography

In 1998, the Orthodox Union celebrated its centennial year and held a number of events marking the occasion. One event was a forum in Washington, DC, discussing the theme of “Orthodoxy’s Role in the Public Square.” Among the distinguished speakers were then-Office of Management and Budget Director (now US Ambassador to Israel) Jack Lew, soon-to-be Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams and, of course, Senator Joseph Lieberman.  

At the time, the OU did not have an advocacy office in the nation’s capital. Indeed, the OU leadership was debating the question as to whether we should open such an office. Senator Lieberman’s remarks at the centennial forum settled the question. He spoke compellingly (and I think for the first time at length in a public way) about the mission of Modern Orthodox Jews to bring our values to American public square in a “genuine” and sophisticated way. Not for the sake of attempting to impose our faith’s values on American society at large, but to share the Torah’s timeless wisdom with a society founded and grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition and open to hearing our voice.  

The following year, we opened the (later named) OU Advocacy Center in Washington. The issues OU Advocacy worked on the ensuing twenty-five years were, not surprisingly, reflective of many of Senator Lieberman’s aligned priorities and we often worked closely with him. These included major pieces of legislation defending religious liberty, empowering parents to protect their children from violent video game content, promoting school choice for nonpublic schools, the creation of the Nonprofit Security Grant Program and, of course, an array of measures to support the State of Israel.  

From left: Elliot Abrams, Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Nathan Diament, Jack Lew, and Senator Joseph Lieberman at an OU Centennial event in 1998 which led to the opening of the OU Advocacy center the following year.

But while the legislative legacy left behind is long and impressive, we can argue that it was Joe Lieberman’s dugma ishit—stature as a role model—that did more for American Orthodox Jews than anything else. The stories of the senator walking miles from Georgetown to Capitol Hill if a vote needed to be cast on Shabbat are well known. But perhaps less recalled, but as important, was how this US senator wore a sheloshim beard, including on the floor of the Senate, after his beloved mother passed away. And how this senator was never too self-important or rushed to stop and say a word to the custodians, cafeteria workers, police officers and so many others who make the Capitol run day in and day out.  

In 2011, I was privileged to facilitate a visit to Capitol Hill by then-Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks delivered the opening prayer in the Senate and Senator Lieberman offered a welcome in response. 

The day before, we arranged a luncheon for senators and representatives that was hosted by Senator Lieberman and at which Rabbi Sacks spoke. One of the most striking things about that event was how these two leaders were, essentially, conveying the same message in different models; Jonathan Sacks as a rabbi and public intellectual and Joe Lieberman as a prominent political leader. The common message is one of the imperative for people of faith—including Torah Jews—to fully and openly engage in society’s most important debates.  

The day Al Gore announced he was picking Joe Lieberman to run on his ticket, I was asked by the Washington Post to write a column explaining how he would manage, if elected, to be vice president while still observing Shabbat, kashrut and more. After covering those topics, I closed the essay with the following lines—which I think are now a fitting epitaph for Joe Lieberman: 

More significant than any of the challenges we’ve heard are the qualities that Lieberman brings to the public debate. They include a respect for faith and the power it has on people’s lives, a commitment to policies that help American families rear their children and a belief in the nobility of public service. Each of these are traits we should expect from all our political leaders, certainly our highest ones. 

May Joe Lieberman’s memory be a blessing and inspiration to us all.  


Nathan Diament is executive director of the OU Advocacy Center. 

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