Yosef Yisrael ben Chanan Lieberman // Remembering an inspiring visit with the late Orthodox Jewish senator

US Senator from Connecticut Joe Lieberman leaves the West Wing of the White House after meeting with US President Donald Trump on May 17, 2017 in Washington, DC. Lieberman is under consideration for the positon of FBI Director. Trump also met with three other candidates: Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, former senior FBI official Richard McFeely and former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating. / AFP PHOTO / Olivier DoulieryOLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty Images

An iconic Orthodox Jewish-American politician passed away last week, leaving behind a legacy of historic achievements and political friendships across the aisle that are almost unheard of now. Above it all, his dedication to Yiddishkeit was such that he held fast to Torah and mitzvos even when in the highest positions of power.
Joseph Isadore Lieberman served as the US senator for Connecticut for 24 years, as a Democrat , and he was the first Jewish person to be on a presidential ticket when he ran as the vice presidential pick of Al Gore in the election of 2004.
Senator Lieberman, universally known as Joe, had been born and raised in Connecticut and attended Yale University and Yale Law School. After working as a lawyer, he became a state senator in Connecticut and then the state attorney general, before running for Congress.
During his time in the US Senate, he was known for bipartisan lawmaking and some friendships that crossed the aisle, most notably with Senator John McCain of Arizona and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Lieberman aroused controversy in Democratic circles when he endorsed McCain in the latter’s run at the presidency in 2008, just four years after Lieberman had been on the Democratic presidential ticket. Lieberman himself ran as an independent in the Senate race of 2006 after losing the Democratic primary.
In 2012, Lieberman retired from the Senate and moved to Riverdale, New York, where he worked as a senior counsel for a law firm.
Last Wednesday, he passed away due to complications from a fall. His levayah was held at Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, Connecticut, and he was buried in the shul’s beis hachaim.
In 2018, Senator Lieberman gave Ami an interview about his life and times, which we ran in Issue 366, the week before Shavuos. We reflect here on that interview so that his discussion of his life can again inform our readers on the occasion of his passing.

When people read the following story,” my prominent host said to me with his trademark smile, “they will either decide that Joe Lieberman is very spiritual or that Joe Lieberman iz a bissel meshuga. But the truth is that what happened that day changed the course of my life.
“I was raised in a frum family—and then I went to Yale and stopped doing some of the mitzvos. For many reasons I could write a whole book about, I continued putting on tefillin every morning, but I stopped observing Shabbos and Yom Tov.
“My mother’s mother, of blessed memory, who was a powerful force in my life, passed away when my wife was expecting our first son. This may seem simpleminded in a way, but it was then that I felt I had to make a choice: Either I was going to continue the chain of tradition now that my grandmother had passed away, or I was going to step back and hope that someone else would do it. I decided to come back, and I began to observe Shabbos and Yom Tov again. But I still wasn’t all the way there, and for a while I would go to shul on Yom Tov in the morning, come home and then either head off to work or to a political event.
“One Shavuos, I came home from shul and was about to leave for some sort of political event—I think it was a picnic for the Sheriffs’ Association, which was a very powerful group—but I was feeling bad about it. I was walking out the front door to my car—I’m embarrassed to tell you this now—when something flew past my eye. When I looked down, I saw a piece of paper on the floor, and I realized it was the klaf from the mezuzah. When I looked up, I saw that the mezuzah had become dislodged. At that moment, I gazed at the heavens and said, ‘Hashem, I get it. This is the last time I’m going to do anything on a Yom Tov other than observe it.’ I had already been feeling guilty for doing things halfway. And I never looked back.

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