By Binyomin Weiss, COLlive.com
For Rabbi Levi Shemtov, “change” and the firm hope slogan “yes we can” are familiar terms he has had to deal with and use in the last 15 years as Chabad’s man in DC.
As a bearded Lubavitcher chasid he has worked diligently to defy stigmas and misconceptions about Orthodox Jews. Up to a point where he sometimes succeeded even where the traditional Jewish establishment didn’t.
Compared to the National Menorah he puts up every year on the White House lawn – “big, warm, and impossible to ignore” (JTA) – Shemtov today has plenty of friends in Washington.
So, after the historic win of Barack Obama as the new leader of the free world, a possibility some in the Jewish community and in Israel were wary of, Shemtov remains unfazed in his role and confident with his connectivity in the new political environment.
In an exclusive interview with COLlive.com, Shemtov, Director of American Friends of Lubavitch in Washington, DC, said that the outcome of this election “marks an interesting shift in the way goverment is going to operate.”
COLLive: What are the challenges Obama faces?
“Many. One of the serious issues he faces is foreign policy, including the threat of terror. Then there are the substancial economic problems and bringing everyone back to the point that the overwhelming majority feel confident that America and its government are heading in the right direction.”
“Now he has to lead, deliver; that’s the tough part. I don’t envy him for dealing with what lies ahead – he is taking over a situation which is very tough for anybody.”
COLLive: Were you surprised that 77% of Jewish voters voted for him?
“If the number is accurate, then it’s somewhat of a surprise. The way the Obama campaign was working for the Jewish vote, it looked like they weren’t expecting it to be quite that high.”
COLLive: In the summer of 2008 he was polling only 50% with Jewish voters. What changed that?
“Prominent Jews speaking on his behalf – starting with Congressman Robert Wexler, Ambassador Dennis Ross and then many more Jewish Members of Congress, including some of the most actively pro-Israel ones. Prominent leaders in the Chicago Jewish community also expressed confidence in him. He seemes to respect them and hear them out. I only hope their positions on Jewish matters will be the right ones.”
COLLive: Were the fears about him justified?
“I share the view of those who say we should let him perform before we pass judgment. The election is over. He now needs to demonstrate what he will do. And people should wait before criticizing him. Many were very worried when George W. Bush took office, and he turned out to be a very good friend of Israel and the Jewish people.”
COLLive: And regarding Israel?
“I would wait until his first announcment(s), before being concerned. He expressed a desire to work with everyone, even those who opposed him, so I think he’ll probably broaden his view somewhat.”
COLLive: Is there a change in your role in Washington?
“It’s the same as it has always been. Power structures change, but our mission does not. Our role is to bring the message of the Rebbe to those in the American political and diplomatic arena. And more specifically, to strengthen yiddishkeit in those in government who are Jewish, strengthening appreciation for who we are among those who are not, reinforce yiddishkeit in Washington generally, and to help shluchim wherever they are with whatever we can – be it guidance to proper officials and agencies, advice on matters involving government and diplomatic matters, etc.”
COLLive: How familiar are you with the Democrats?
“We are here over 15 years already. Many of those who will be running things at the White House are friends of ours since then and have remained involved all along. Boruch Hashem, we have very good relationships with people on both sides of the political aisle and we shouldn’t have any problems working with the White House in the new Administration.
COLLive: Even after eight years with the Republicans?
“I don’t know what that means. As I said, we have always worked in a balanced fashion with both sides, no matter who ran Congress or the White House. And for many years, one ran one while the other ran the other. We are not a political organization, and many of the people who will be working in this new Administraion already know that from our past experience with them.”
COLLive: What’s your take on Rahm Emanuel, Jewish Congressman from Chicago, IL, who was chosen as Obama’s chief-of-staff?
“Rahm is very strong, operationally and politically, and I’m sure he will be very effective.”