Religion and Democracy Take Center Stage

Senator Lieberman Acclaims Yeshiva University as an “Important Proposition” at Straus Center Event

A capacity crowd of more than 1,000 people filled Yeshiva University’s Lamport Auditorium to hear a conversation on Jewish ideas and American Democracy between Senator Joseph Lieberman (I – CT) and the director of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik on the evening of August 31, the last day of fall orientation.

As the first of a series of public conversations on religion and democracy, the event also served as the first public gathering of the fledgling Straus Center, attracting an audience of students, alumni, administrators, faculty and members from the greater Jewish community.

Intent on developing a new breed of Jewish thinkers and public intellectuals, the Straus Center functions as a hub for the spreading and nurturing of YU’s motto of Torah U’madda, which combines the traditional ideals of Jewish learning with the great ideas of the Western tradition.

In introducing the event, President Richard M. Joel spoke of the Straus Center’s important mission of “making headlines out of what it is we are. What it is we do. And what it is we must be.” President Joel welcomed Lieberman to Yeshiva, referring to him as a “groundbreaking Jew,” “a serious Jew,” and “a member of the family.”

Rabbi Soloveichik exclaimed his delight in opening the Straus Center with a Torah observant United States senator, calling Lieberman, “the perfect person in which to begin our series of public conversations of America and religion.”

The senator returned these compliments by sharing his admiration of the Yeshiva mission. “I feel very much at home,” he said. “YU and the Straus Center stand for an important proposition that our mission cannot be narrow, we must reach out [with our Torah ideals].”

Using Lieberman’s latest book, The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath, as a springboard for discussion, the conversation revolved around the senator’s life as a well-known observant Jewish public servant. Lieberman recounted the inspiration he felt from the presidency of John F. Kennedy—the first Roman Catholic president—which eventually convinced him to enter politics and noted the great progress made in the realm of religious tolerance in America since that time.

An especially crowd-pleasing moment occurred when Lieberman described an encounter he had with former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin days before her televised debate during the 2008 election season. With Palin feeling nervous and off her game, her aides contacted Lieberman, asking him to help calm her as “they both were religious.” He went on to report that he shared an idea of Yeshiva University’s own Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the great-uncle of the Straus Center’s director) with Palin, which gave her strength and motivation before the debate.

Senator Lieberman meets with student leaders at a special dinner preceding the event.
Senator Lieberman meets with student leaders at a reception before the event.

The senator closed the conversation by directly addressing the students in the audience, urging them to pursue their desired professions knowing that their faith need not hinder their success. “In this country and at this moment you will never have to choose between living a Torah observant life and your secular professional career,” he said. “Whatever you do, do it with the confidence that the system will respect your observance.”

“Senator Lieberman embodies the promise of America,” said Rabbi Soloveichik after the event. “We were delighted with his forthrightness. He answered my questions eloquently and we loved having him.”

Jordan Abowitz, the father of YU students, came to the Wilf Campus “to see what Senator Lieberman had to say. I always watch him from afar and now I can be five rows from him and hear him first hand,” said Abowitz.

As a Beren Campus student liaison for the Straus Center, Jina Davidovich ’12S, greatly enjoyed the public dialogue. “It was absolutely fabulous,” she said. “I was extremely impressed by the caliber of the questions and the depth of Senator Lieberman’s responses. They addressed key points important to America and our university while showing how much Judaism has to give to the world at large.”

The next Straus Center Conversation will take place in Weissberg Commons on Friday, October 28 at 10 a.m. Entitled “Faith and Democracy in America and Europe,” it will feature the United Kingdom’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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