(RNS) — The prayer service in the community room of the subsidized senior citizen high-rise was a modest one.
Friends and family of Sylvia Greenhouse showed up that day in 2006 to honor the life of the 84-year-old congregant of Congregation of Beth Shalom, who had just died. Rabbi Michael Beals led the service.
Then Joe Biden popped in.
“He just showed up, unannounced,” said Beals, the leader of the Wilmington, Delaware, synagogue. “You would not expect to see a U.S. senator there.”
Beals will recount the incident in a video clip to air on the final night of the Democratic National Convention on Thursday (Aug. 20) at which Biden will officially accept his party’s nomination for president. His story forms part of a longer “I know Joe” video testimonial in which multiple people speak.
Beals said the incident from 14 years ago crystallizes for him Biden’s ability to connect with people, including American Jews.
Biden showed up at the service to honor Greenhouse's memory. She had been a longtime Biden supporter, contributing $18 to each of his Senate races going back to 1972. (The number 18 is a symbolic number in Judaism corresponding to the Hebrew word for “life.”)
Greenhouse was active in Democratic Party circles and may have helped throw a house party for Biden back in 1972, but she was not a person of influence and certainly not a big giver.
Biden, who represented Delaware in the U.S. Senate for 36 years, wanted to pay his respects.
He found his way to the prayer service, called a shiva minyan, without any staff or journalists.
“If I didn’t tell the story, nobody would know,” Beals said.
A California native who had recently served a congregation in Los Angeles, Beals, 57, said he never met his two previous senators — Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.
“They never came to my synagogue, let alone a shiva,” he told Religion News Service.
In the years that followed, Beals has seen Biden on several other occasions. As vice president under President Barack Obama, Biden, who is Catholic, threw annual Rosh Hashana parties to which he invited Beals, whom he called “my rabbi.”
Biden also asked Beals to represent the Jewish community at the funeral for his son Beau, the Delaware attorney general who died in 2015. Beals said he was honored to do so.
He said it would be misleading to call him “Biden’s rabbi” since he has never been called upon to give Biden spiritual advice. But Beals considers the former vice president a friend and last year wrote to him to encourage him to run.
Beals said many of the congregants in his 400-family Conservative synagogue support Biden’s candidacy, though he has stopped short of endorsing him from the pulpit.
That’s not particularly surprising.
Jews lean liberal and mostly vote with the Democratic Party. In 2018, nearly 80% of Jewish voters cast ballots for Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives, according to exit polls. Jews strongly supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign, preferring the Democratic candidate by 71%. President Donald Trump earned only 24% of their vote.
Early polling suggests Biden will easily win the Jewish vote this year.
Beals keeps a handwritten letter Biden sent to him last year. In it, Biden wrote: “Looking back on my time in public office I can say without fear of contradiction — the Jewish community in Delaware and around the nation has not only been the source of undying support, but the source of my public education. ... I am indebted to you and to the community in so many ways. You are familiar with the Talmudic saying, ‘What comes from the heart enters the heart.’ Your sentiments entered my heart. Keep the faith!”
“He’s so affectionate and such a kind person,” said Beals. “He’s a true extrovert. He gets his energy from other people.”