By Eric Fingerhut, JTA
At the cocktail hour of the American Friends of Lubavitch’s annual benefit dinner this past June, AFL Washington director Rabbi Levi Shemtov brought National Jewish Democratic Council executive director Ira Forman and Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks up to the podium together — as he’d done at a number of previous dinners — to demonstrate the bipartisanship of the event.
That may not happen again next year.
In a e-mailed letter to Shemtov obtained by JTA, Forman told the influential D.C. rabbi that he will “decline invitations to future Chabad events” that he holds in the nation’s capital. “I currently do not feel that it is proper for a NJDC representative to give a ‘bi-partisan hechsher’ to your events,” Forman wrote.
The reason, according to the letter, is a series of what Forman calls “certain Chabad associated individuals and institutions taking part in partisan activities” in the last three election cycles. The most recent was a conference call last month that about 40 Chabad-Lubavitch shluchim had with John McCain, in which the Republican asked for the group’s endorsement.
“With this McCain event I do not believe you have adequately considered the issues we previously discussed — including making sure that if you invite the candidate of one party that you then proceed (before the first event takes place) and make a formal, written invitation to the candidate of the other party.”
Shemtov told JTA that he had “several” discussions with the Barack Obama campaign about a similar event and the only reason it hasn’t happened yet is because of “scheduling challenges.”
“If between one event and an an equivalent event there is a lapse of time beyond our control, that can hardly be considered partisanship,” the rabbi said. “Especially in this particular case, we were clear with both campaigns that whatever would be done with one we would be willing to do with the other.”
Forman would not comment further on the e-mail, which Forman had blind-copied to some mutual friends of the two men. “This letter was not intended to be public,” he said.
A Democratic operative pointed to a handful of instances in recent years in which individual rabbis had allegedly become inappropriately partisan. Among them was Chabad-Lubavitch of Greater Boynton’s Rabbi Sholom Ciment, who wrote a letter in 2004 extolling the virtues of the Bush-Cheney ticket and calling support of the GOP in that election “not politics, [but] saving lives.” Two years later, Brooklyn Rabbi Shea Hecht endorsed Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) in an e-mail circulated by the Santorum campaign.
Shemtov said that Ciment corrected himself immediately, but that the Kerry campaign did not pursue an event at Ciment’s shul. Forman responded that the NJDC did attempt to schedule a program, but the synagogue wasn’t interested.
As for the Santorum letter, Shemtov said Hecht had no authority to speak for the organization and should never have sent an e-mail of that type at all. Indeed, Hecht retracted it in a subsequent e-mail.
“Chabad-Lubavitch has never been nor cannot be nor will it ever be a partisan organization,” said Shemtov. “In fact, we are diligent in ensuring access and information both ways across the spectrum of public officials.”
Shemtov added that he does not rely on Forman for bipartisanship, pointing out that his annual dinner always includes members of Congress from both parties as honorees. “Many of our events attract more Democrats than his do, so frankly I’m not too concerned,” Shemtov said.