When Democratic Congressman Hakeem Jeffries announced that “The President of Israel is in da house”, thousands of devout African-American Christians broke out in enthusiastic applause. By the time Reuven Rivlin finished his signature folksy deliverance of his succinct “I also have a dream speech”, the crowd at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn was begging for more. It was an incongruous yet utterly heart-warming launch of Rivlin’s first visit to the United States as the tenth President of Israel.
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In an event that contrasted sharply with the negative atmosphere generated in recent days by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s planned speech in Congress - and which also differed dramatically from run of the mill appearances of most visiting Israeli politicians before Jewish audiences – Rivlin succeeded in charming his crowd and, admittedly, delighting the handful of Israelis in the audience as well. He linked the Holocaust, Zionism and the establishment of Israel with African-American liberation from slavery and the Civil Rights movement, garnishing with an “I also have a dream” nod to Martin Luther King that “Jerusalem will serve as a model of coexistence.”
The warmth shown to Rivlin by the crowd in New York only highlighted the frost currently being directed at Netanyahu by the White House in Washington. In fact, 24 hours before his departure from Israel on Saturday night, the administration suddenly initiated contacts with the Presidents’ House in Jerusalem in an effort to arrange a last-minute meeting between Rivlin and Obama, upon the latter’s return from India and Saudi Arabia. Rivlin’s office cited “schedule conflicts” as having scuttled the effort, though it also stands to reason that he preferred to steer clear of the raging war of words surrounding Netanyahu’s scheduled address to Congress at the beginning of March.
If Rivlin’s own timetable won’t get upended by the winter storm slated to hit the New York area on Monday afternoon, the president is scheduled to launch a Yad Vashem exhibition at UN headquarters on Monday evening, to meet with Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and to address the General Assembly on Tuesday in honor of International Holocaust Day. On Monday morning he will travel to West Point where he will lay a wreath at the grave of Colonel Micky Marcus, the American officer who volunteered to assist the fledgling Israeli army in the 1948 War of Independence and was killed by friendly fire.
Rivlin is also slated to meet with Henry Kissinger as well as Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York and to visit the 9/11 memorial in downtown Manhattan. But the departure from the regular run of such visits is Rivlin’s meeting on Wednesday with Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz and the Hispanic community – and the spiritual celebration that launched his visit on Sunday morning at the Christian Cultural Center (CCC) in the Flatlands neighborhood in Brooklyn, a few miles west of Kennedy Airport.
The church’s famous gospel choir and the crowd of thousands sang “Baruch Hashem Adonai” “Jehovah Jireh you are my provider” and other hymns as they awaited Rivlin in a church that is the largest in New York and thus holds 3-4 prayer services every Sunday to cater to its members. After short introductions by Jeffries and Israeli Consul General Ido Aharoni, Pastor and CCC Founder A. R. Bernard introduced Rivlin as a “moral compass” who speaks out for civil rights of minorities, especially Israeli Arabs. Then it was the president’s turn to deliver his carefully written speech that strikingly hit home with his audience.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin shaking hands with gospel choir members at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, Jan. 25, 2015. (Mark Neiman/GPO)
He managed to link the date of his famous family’s emigration to Eretz Yisrael, with the birthdate of Abraham Lincoln; he described the establishment of Israel, the success of the civil rights movement, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union as “miracles” all connected to the message of the book of Exodus “Let My People Go”; he mentioned Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched alongside King on the bridge in Selma (and whose role was expunged from the acclaimed movie now showing in cinemas) and mentioned that King was assassinated as he was on his way to a Passover Seder, to mark the Jewish festival of freedom.
“I asked myself, why? Why was it so important for King to attend a Seder?” Rivlin asked. “ think, it was because King knew, that one cannot fight for his own freedom, without fighting for the freedoms of others.” This message, that often seems so hard for far too many Israelis to address, resonated in the hall in Brooklyn on Sunday: it was naturally received and rapturously welcomed by Rivlin’s devoted audience.