I am halfway to 40. I am halfway to 40 and the primordial waters are swirling around us. I am halfway to 40 and today, of all days, I am no longer certain that the ark can float. I am halfway to 40 and I have no home in Jerusalem anymore and I have no home in Jaffa yet and I worry about everyone who has a home in the United States and about everyone whose home is impacted by the United States and that means that I worry about everyone. It is the stroke of midnight on the 20th week and it is January 20th and this week my blessing isn’t for me. It goes out to him.
Dear President Obama,
I, like many Americans, first met you in the summer of 2004 on CSPAN. I was about to begin my senior year of high school. It was August. My parents, staunch democrats, were watching coverage of the DNC Convention, and I remember my Mom calling me downstairs to the TV. She sounded so excited. “You have to hear this guy,” she said.
I went downstairs, looked at the TV, and saw you. Barack Obama. State senator from Illinois. Talking about America.
“He’s gonna be president one day,” I thought. I was thinking of 2016, 2020 maybe. You were still just starting out, really. You weren’t known.
November 2004 came along, and on the day of the election I went to school wearing a tie-dye shirt plastered with “Kerry/Edwards” and “Anybody But Bush” stickers. It was so hard to be 17. I understood, at least as much as my 18-year-old classmates, the ramifications of the day. I wanted to take part, but I was 7 months and 18 days short of that magic number.
You know what happened next. The last four Bush years were rough for America. They weren’t so bad for me. I started college, got involved with local politics in St. Paul, and studied history. I pulled for you from the beginning of the 2008 electoral process. In June of 2008, I turned 21, and you were in the Twin Cities on the night that you got enough primary votes to declare yourself the presumed Democratic candidate. I stood in line for hours waiting for you and Michelle and stood on the floor of the Xcel Center, mere feet from you both, cheering myself hoarse.
November 2008 came along, and on the day of the election I voted in a presidential race for the first time. I remember feeling lucky to be in a state with paper ballots. It was powerful to fill in the bubble next to your name instead of just pressing a button. My first presidential vote was for a black man. I felt like there was a possibility of progress.
That night, friends and I gathered. Stereotypical millennials that we were, we had the TV tuned to Jon Stewart, and it was from his mouth, quirked into a suppressed expression of glee, that we heard “And Barack Obama is going to be the next President of the United States.” California’s polls had just closed. It was settled. Still, we couldn’t believe it. We flipped channels frantically (this was before everyone had an iPhone), settling onto a more reputable news source. It was true. You had won.
We screamed and hugged and cried and laughed. It was cold in Minnesota (shocker), but we burst out of the house, shouting our delight, listening to others yelling back their own. People driving by honked and flashed their lights. We ran the few blocks back to campus, which was in a completely ecstatic state. Students swarmed the quad and held raves in laundry rooms.
The next day was Wednesday, which meant the possibility of class. I sat in the music building, staring at the front page of the local paper, which of course featured you and your family walking out to offer an acceptance speech. My classmates sat around me. Our middle-aged teacher showed up. He looked at the paper and then at us. “We’re not going to learn about Beethoven today.” His next words were couched in reverent, hopeful disbelief. “I still can’t believe it. These are the people who are going to the White House.”
You went to the White House. Congress fought you. State governments fought you. You got so much less done than you had imagined. Your hair went grey. Your daughters grew up. You never quit trying. You created jobs. You boosted fuel efficiency standards. You acknowledged institutionalized racism. You brought the vast majority of our troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq. You repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell.” You nominated Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, only the 3rd and 4th women ever to serve, for the Supreme Court. You passed the ACA.
I was lucky. I turned 26 in 2013. I found temporary insurance for six months and was one of the millions of Americans to enroll through the Marketplace as soon as it was available. The website was awful, as you just might remember, but my eventual coverage was good. I am afraid that, very soon, insurance companies will be able to deny me coverage because I have seen a therapist. I am afraid that, even if I do acquire insurance, my premiums will be high because I am a woman of childbearing age. I am afraid that the disappearance of subsidies may mean that I cannot afford to be insured. I am afraid that my body, that vessel created בצלם אלהים– in God’s own image– may be placed under the jurisdiction of others.
And that’s just for me. I am so scared for so many others for so many reasons. I am scared for people of color who are struggling against a system that is stacked against them in practice and in law and that may be strengthened in the four years to come.I am scared for LGBTQ people and their families and their ability to stay legally and safely as such. I am scared for children who will continue to grow in the next four years in a nation that may not prioritize educating them. I am scared for Jews and Muslims whose places of worship and community centers are being threatened with bombs and fires. I am scared for every one of us walking down our own streets in our own cities who will be at the mercy of anybody able to purchase a gun under laws that are already too lax and are likely to become more so. I am scared for our nation’s allies and neighbors. I am scared for our future.
I imagine that you’re scared too. I imagine that you’re afraid of what your successor will do to the America you have been working to make greater for your entire adult life.
And I imagine that you’re relieved to be stepping back a little, to let your grey hairs rest, to watch your children finish becoming adults without having to look away from your family and to the world every time anything comes up. I imagine that you’re eager to be able to speak your mind a little more. I imagine that on January 21st you will want to sleep in and will instead snap awake terribly early, only to remember that you aren’t president any longer. I imagine that you will watch the steam rise from your coffee and try to think of the good. And I imagine, seeing as we’ve never met, that I am wrong about some of these imaginings.
Today, I saw a video of you and Michelle at the shelter where you donated Malia and Sasha’s old swing set. I saw you do the presidential wave and smile, but I also saw you lean down to speak with a small child and to push her on the swings. There was press filming you, sure, but this wasn’t about re-election anymore. This was just you being a good guy, sending your legacy forward.
You’re a good guy, President Obama. You aren’t perfect. There were things that I wanted from you that you didn’t offer. There were things that I expected from you that you didn’t deliver. But I am still proud to call you my president. I am proud of what you did for America and of what you tried to do. I was a high school and college student under your predecessor, but you are the only president I have known as an adult. I will become a rabbi under your successor and instead of seeing a role model in the White House I will see an adversary, but I will hold up my community and it will hold me and we will continue to push for change we can believe in.
I am grateful to you, Mr. President– grateful for your words and for your acts and, yes, for your hope. “Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope.” We need that audacity today, and we will need it for the next four years. Thank you for teaching us how to find it.
Blessings, Peace, and Love,