Jewish banker praised in Obamas state of the nation speech

In times like these, “Jewish banker” might seem an unlikely descriptor for “hero,” but that’s who President Barack Obama chose to make his point about being generous in hard times.

Obama’s salute to Leonard Abess in his state of the nation speech Feb. 25 was likely to bring a dose of pride to a community that has been unnerved by the coverage of another Jewish banker, Bernard Madoff, and allegations of Madoff’s robbing from the poor (and the wealthy) to keep himself rich.

Jewish groups in general were quite pleased with the speech, which emphasized economic recovery through government-directed stimulus. Obama also briefly touched on foreign affairs, stressing his commitment to outreach when it comes to dealing with the Middle East, but also hinting at toughness should recalcitrant nations like Iran not be forthcoming.

The most emotional Jewish moment, perhaps, was that involving Abess.

“I have also learned that hope is found in unlikely places; that inspiration often comes not from those with the most power or celebrity, but from the dreams and aspirations of Americans who are anything but ordinary,” Obama said in the first of a number of references to the upper reaches of the Capitol, where the president’s chosen “heroes” sat with the first lady.

“I think of Leonard Abess, a bank president from Miami who reportedly cashed out of his company, took a $60 million bonus and gave it out to all 399 people who worked for him, plus another 72 who used to work for him,” Obama said. “He didn’t tell anyone, but when the local newspaper found out, he simply said, ‘I knew some of these people since I was 7 years old. It didn’t feel right getting the money myself.’

Leonard Abess (center), CEO of City National Bank of Florida, is hugged by employees in the bank’s vault. photo/ap/miami herald/charles trianor jr.

According to the biography of Abess posted by City National Bank, Abess is a board member of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and the Anti-Defamation League.

“Leonard and his family have been very generous supporters of the fed for as long as I can remember,” said Jacob Solomon, the executive vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

The night contained several other Jewish moments, both poignant and humorous.

Obama’s warmth was returned by Jewish lawmakers, who were among the first to stand and applaud the president’s initiatives. Chief among them was Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who rollicked with laughter after Obama countered Republican heckling about the spending portions of the stimulus package with a grin, a pause and a sentence that began: “With the deficit we inherited … ”

There were plenty of hugs and cheers for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is recovering from pancreatic cancer treatment.

After the speech, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) got a hug from the president even though Lieberman supported Obama’s Republican opponent during the election. During the speech, Lieberman delivered his trademark avuncular applause at Obama’s pledge to make sure tax-funded loans go to taxpayers.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) was able to to get through to the front lines to shake the president’s hand on his way out, along with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.). Officials at several Jewish groups praised the speech and the direction of the stimulus.

“We felt at home in the speech,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, the public policy umbrella bringing together the synagogue movements, several national Jewish groups and local communities across North America.

Gutow noted that the three main pillars of Obama’s agenda — energy, health care and education — are all major priorities of his organization.

William Daroff, the United Jewish Communities’ Washington director, said he particularly liked the focus on “Jewish virtues,” such as education and health care, noting that caring for those in need is a pillar of the federation system.

In Obama’s brief references to foreign policies at the end of the speech, he coupled his calls for expanded diplomatic outreach to his quest for peace for Israel and its neighbors.

“In words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun,” he said. “For we know that America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, but the world cannot meet them without America. We cannot shun the negotiating table, nor ignore the foes or forces that could do us harm. We are instead called to move forward with the sense of confidence and candor that serious times demand. To seek progress toward a secure and lasting peace between Israel and her neighbors, we have appointed an envoy to sustain our effort.”

The speech did not mention Iran, but Obama’s emphasis on the “negotiating table” reflected his pledge to reach out to Iran’s leadership in a bid to have the Islamic republic stand down from its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Orthodox Union public policy director Nathan Diament said it made sense that the Jewish state was one of the few countries that Obama referenced in the speech because “the Middle East is the central venue for America’s greatest foreign policy challenges.”

“From the Obama perspective, constructive engagement is the central component of not only supporting Israel but advancing American interests,” Diament said.

Not everyone approved.

“He ignored 15 years of tragic failure” since the Oslo Accords “and said ‘continue with the ways of the past,’ ” said Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein. “He should have said we’re going to work to transform the Palestinian culture [and] demand they jail terrorists.”

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.