Some of Rabbi Levi Shemtov’s most prominent congregants are likely to leave his synagogue soon, but the Washington, D.C., rabbi isn’t sweating it.
After all, Shemtov has been through decades of presidential transitions as Chabad’s main man here, and even though this one is unfolding unusually, he’s confident he can continue to offer a spiritual home for people on both sides of the political aisle.
“I am a rabbi in the political arena,” Shemtov told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I’m not a politician in the rabbinical arena. There’s a difference.”
Shemtov directs American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), an outreach and fundraising body and synagogue for the global Hasidic outreach movement. Growing up, he watched Chabad negotiate Washington under the guidance of his father, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, who launched the tradition of lighting a menorah in front of the White House. That was during the Carter administration, in 1979.
Levi Shemtov began running Chabad’s D.C. operations in 1992, the year that one one-term Republican president (George H.W. Bush) lost to a Democratic challenger (Bill Clinton). Twenty-eight years later, another Republican president has lost to a Democrat after his first term — but this time, members of the outgoing president’s family belong to Shemtov’s congregation.
Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner live a seven-minute walk from the shul, which doubles as Shemtov’s home, and attend services there regularly. Shemtov’s intimate and substantive relationship with the outgoing first family doesn’t stop there: He also had a small role in the recent treaties between Israel and Arab states.
For years, he has played matchmaker between Jewish organizational leaders and some Arab nations, whose embassies neighbor his headquarters near Washington’s Dupont Circle.
Some of the seeds of the breakthrough Abraham Accords, signed in September between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, were in his impromptu blessing of the King of Bahrain at a 2008 event, which opened the door to further Arab-Jewish cooperation.
Now, not only is Joe Biden promising a 180 on just about every policy President Donald Trump introduced in his four years in office, but Trump has also broken virtually every norm aimed at facilitating a transition. The outgoing president is also rushing through executive orders that could cripple Biden’s first months in office.
He stresses that he’s no politico and anticipates a warm relationship with the incoming White House. He recalls Biden quoting Schneerson, off the cuff, and the president-elect once poured him a drink. Years ago, his father would ride the train with the then-Delaware senator, whose nickname is “Amtrak Joe.”
He sees Biden as someone who has affection for the Jews, as well. The incoming president, he said, surprised him once by recalling a saying of the Lubavitcher Rebbe extemporaneously while speaking at a Chabad conference. Shemtov realized how steeped Biden was likely to have been in Lubavitcher lore as a result of those Amtrak journeys with his father.
“He was giving his prepared remarks, but then went off on his own for a good half hour,” Shemtov said. “And in the middle of it he turns to my father. ‘Rabbi Shemtov, did you not teach me that the Rebbe said that what you do one day is not enough for the next day and every living thing must grow?’ This was not in his prepared remarks. This must have been taught to him over many, many years.”
Then there was the time in 2011, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress, that Biden poured Shemtov drinks. It was a significant moment for Shemtov, whose grandfathers were once imprisoned by the leaders of another country, the Soviet Union.
“I see Joe Biden walking up the bar,” he said. “So I got out of the way and said, ‘Please, Mr. Vice President.’ He says, ‘No, rabbi, what are you having?’ I said, ‘After you.’ He said, ‘No no no no no, I’m Irish, and you’re now in my house, so I’ll pour you a drink. Tell me what you want.’ So a vice president pouring you a drink at the bar is a pretty interesting experience for this young American Jew.”
Shemtov is ubiquitous in town no matter which party is in power, especially (in pre-pandemic times) around Hanukkah, when he supervises the koshering of the White House parties and lights of the menorah in front of the White House. He is almost always accompanied by a top Jewish administration official and his father as the crane rises towards the massive candelabra.