By Binyamin Granot, Washington
On my second day visiting Washington, near the end of the year, I pass by the White House. Police vehicles stationed on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue communicate that this is the world’s nerve center, the residence of a superpower’s president, George W. Bush. No automobiles are allowed.
To the right are planted Turkish flags in tribute to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has arrived for a meeting with the American president, and to the left, waving Turkish flags, are protesters resolutely opposed to what their Prime Minister represents. In the middle are other demonstrators, making their voices heard on every possible subject: opposition to the Iraq war, support for the Iraq war, decrying global warming, pro-Israel, anti-Israel. Some individuals are demanding that Bush do more domestically, while others specifically push for deeper foreign involvement. It’s an “eirev rav” of pro and con, with one man hardly understanding the other’s language and certainly not identifying with the issues he’s demonstrating for (or against). The biggest thing is the noise—right in the capital of the world.
Out of this colorful sight emerges Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Chassidic garb an eye-catching standout. He’s not embarrassed. Just the opposite. He’s not just the Chabad shliach to Washington, D.C. Speaking to him exposes the ambassador of Judaism to Washington who just came out of another White House meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush, with whom he meets occasionally. “You can understand that I can’t expand on things I talked about with him,” smiles Rabbi Shemtov to me. “Maybe after Bush completes his term I’ll be able to say a little more. That’s self-understood,” Rabbi Shemtov explains, returns to this understanding several times in the course of our conversation.
“At Chanukah,” he then tells me, “the place we’re in right now will shine with Jewish light.” Indeed, at Chanukah’s first light, on the day American non-Jews prepare for their holidays, the White House entrance area was filled with hundreds of Jews and others for the traditional Chanukah candle lighting ceremony. Rabbi Shemtov lit the giant menorah standing in the adjacent park, and the hundreds of participants broke out singing “Maoz Tzur” accompanied by an American military band. Cabinet secretaries, senators and government officials stood on a stage, one by one praising Rabbi Shemtov’s work in the capitol. “This is the great proof of government support for Jews here,” Rabbi Shemtov says.
The Jewish nucleus of Capitol Hill
One of the unique characteristics of Washington as a capitol to which stream thousands of elected officials from the world over is that it is an available, accessible place for problem-solving in many international Jewish communities. Twenty years ago, Agudas Chassidei Chabad chairman Rabbi Avraham Shemtov slipped into this niche, becoming Chabad’s first ambassador to Washington. “He established all the activities of American Friends of Lubavitch, which brings together Jewish government workers,” says Rabbi Shemtov. “Fourteen years ago, when my father understood that he couldn’t be a ‘wandering ambassador’, he sent me to set up the permanent office here.”
At the initiative of Rabbi Shemtov, a group of distinguished Chabad rabbis visited the White House several years ago, meeting with President Bush in the Oval Office and discussing Judaism, Chabad and the Rebbe. For his part, Bush talked about his personal life and his ties with the Jewish people.
“No other organization succeeded in arranging a lengthy personal meeting with the President,” says Rabbi Levi Shemtov, pointing to a photo of the Chabad rabbis in the Oval Office. “It’s a rare thing. We are the only Jewish organization that succeeded in getting this. He spoke with us from the heart for an hour.”
Washington bubbles over with activity throughout the day. It’s America’s nerve center, with hundreds of offices of various organizations, banks and world institutions having a presence here. Every lobbyist starting off in American government knows that without an office in Washington, efforts are futile.
That’s why the city brims with life during daylight hours. With the fall of darkness and closing of the workday the town starts emptying out. Only guests of the city center’s dozens of hotels remain.
Hundreds of thousands of people live in the communities directly surrounding Washington D.C. alone. The majority of city workers are concentrated in the greater metropolitan area, in the northern suburbs of Maryland or in the southern neighborhoods of Virginia. That’s why the percentage of Jews in Washington itself is not meaningful, with the majority of Jews working in the city living in adjacent Baltimore, home to one of America’s largest Jewish population centers.
In the middle of our conversation, Rabbi Shemtov produces the most recent issue of the Jewish Daily Forward. It’s a paper not necessarily affiliated with Orthodox communities, but the paper’s writer, Nathan Gutman, is impressed by Rabbi Levi Shemtov’s work in Washington, as confessed in the course of their meeting during a convention of Jewish organizational leaders held recently in Washington.
Under the headline “Secret Campaign,” the newspaper reports on Chabad’s activities in Washington by means of what it calls the Capitol Jewish Forum: a group of hundreds of Jewish political activists and Washington insiders, many of them with pull on Capitol Hill and in the White House.
The group counts close to five hundred members, of which some are lawmakers and members of Congress. Several dozen of them are Jewish lobbyists. The Forum was established when Rabbi Levi Shemtov arrived to pitch his tent in Washington. It began with only ten members. Its goal was to support and provide a network of friends for the many Jews working on Capitol Hill.
The Forum grew over the course of the years, both because it held events and because of the growing stream of Jews working in government and politics. “We didn’t recruit friends. Everyone came to the Forum of their own volition,” says Rabbi Shemtov, who describes the Forum as no longer a uniter of several political parties, but that a fine thread binds all Forum members from right to left, Republican to Democrat. Jewish Forum members enjoy a long line of holiday events throughout the year, in addition to the many Torah shiurim provided every week.
“Thirty-five thousand Jews live around the city,” Rabbi Shemtov says. “Despite this, there are 200-300 Orthodox Jews, and even they live in far-flung places and don’t get together on a regular basis.”
Despite this, the area’s Jewish presence has always stood out.
“The community has greatly opened up in recent years,” says Shemtov. “In the beginning, many Jews who came to Washington were embarrassed to be Jewish. It was hard for them. After we set up the Capitol Jewish Forum, Jewish activities in Washington got strong momentum.”
As we sit in the spacious sitting room of Shemtov’s central Washington home, he is personally arranging Chanukah events to take place after I’ll be back in Israel. One is the ceremony opposite the White House, the one with the military band. But the other one, the more important one, will occur inside the White House itself on Chanukah for the second consecutive year. “You need to understand. We are not concerned that a non-Jew lights the Shamash on the menorah,” points out Rabbi Shemtov. “There’s something especially meaningful here when the President of the United States lights Chanukah candles—he is the warmest leader to Judaism we’ve ever had. That’s what’s important.”
The Jewish Advisor to Foreign Embassies
Rabbi Shemtov sees his work among government types in Washington as one layer of his personal mission. The more important work, in his opinion, is representing Judaism and helping his brothers through his connection with government people. Additionally, Shemtov does not ignore local Jews and concerns himself with all their needs.
“We have three branches of shlichus,” Rabbi Shemtov explains. “Just like every Chabad shliach, we have a local Chabad House. We work towards deepening Jewish identity among Jewish public servants, and, obviously, the work of representing Judaism and Chabad to the government. That’s the most important job.”
A contingent of rabbis from China visited Washtington a few weeks ago. In China, it was explained, authorities create difficulties for Jewish activities in various areas, but the Jewish shluchim keeping trying all the time to pressure the Chinese government to soften the impact on China’s Jewish community.
However, among the millions of Chinese trying to find a listening ear in their government’s authorities, the Jewish voice was almost completely drowned out. In Washington, by contrast, the Chinese listen to at least some domestic concerns. For his part, Rabbi Shemtov organized a meeting between the rabbis from China and Washington’s Chinese ambassador, who in turn, burned by the rabbis’ accusation, promised to help at the highest levels—something the rabbis could not do by ordinary Chinese procedures.
Beyond ambassadors, hundreds of heads of state, senior diplomats and agents with influence in every country come to Washington. Dozens of Jewish inquiries come to Rabbi Shemtov every day from all over the world, and not just Chabadniks, asking him to help them.
Though Judaism’s ambassador is in Washington, his net reaches to the ends of the earth. “Sometimes I’ll hear about a planned meeting of the leaders of a certain country, and I’ll take the initiative to figure out how I can help the Jews there. This week they said the president of Estonia was coming, and I already figured out what the Jews of Tallinn need and I already have a list of questions ready for the president,” says Shemtov. “Besides helping the Jews there, I deepen the tie with the head of the government in the hope of being helpful in the future.”
In one case, Rabbi Shemtov met with former German ambassador to Washington Wolfgang Ischinger, hearing from him that Germany’s Jewish community was the third largest in Europe. The ambassador boasted that “it is absolutely possible to give our government a new impression. Since he declared open war on anti-Semitism, Jewish life has significantly changed.” In response, Rabbi Shemtov told him that today’s Germany has earned Jews’ trust. “Sixty years ago they wanted their annihilation, and today they help us because they understand the uniqueness of the Jewish people.”
Foreign embassy staffers frequently turn to Rabbi Shemtov with requests for help in various issues, especially when they have something to do with Jews. Despite this, the winner of most calls placed to Chabad in Washington is the local Israeli Embassy.
By Israeli diplomatic rules, every State representative abroad must eat kosher food at every event at which he or she appears, and to take care, at least externally, not to belittle their own Jewishness. If the Israeli diplomats act in their own eyes to this extent, then the Israeli Embassy in Washington has unofficially minted Rabbi Levi Shemtov as its rabbi.
“The Israeli Ambassador here, Salai Meridor, is a close friend of mine,” relates Rabbi Shemtov. “Also the lieutenant ambassador and the diplomatic corps visit a lot at the local shul and at Jewish events. Every time an important Israeli personality comes, they ask how to keep Shabbos, kashrus; they are very open and want to know.”
When the President Shed Tears
Besides his public work, Rabbi Shemtov has deep personal ties with President George W. Bush. He comes and goes at the White House dozens of times a year. Before the Jewish holidays Rabbi Shemtov visits the White House, meets with the American president and tells him the meaning and story of the holiday. Bush, for his part, speaks extensively with Rabbi Shemtov on Jewish history and displays a broad expertise in all matters of the Jewish people’s history.
“He is a very, very substantial person,” testifies Rabbi Shemtov. “Bush likes it when you get straight to the point and don’t use a lot of words. Some people things he likes to keep it short because he’s not smart enough for long conversations, but that’s because he is a very fundamental person. He can understand one thing from the other without having to hear the whole thing.”
“Whenever Bush hears something new about Judaism, he calls me and wants to hear about it. At every meeting with Jewish leaders at the White House, he asks me to be there. Besides this, many White House staffers are Jewish, and not one will dispute that Bush loves Jews,” Shemtov is led to believe.
According to Shemtov, “If this were not the case, there’s no logical reason for him to show such fiery support for Israel and Jews for just political reasons. Only one in five Jews in the U.S. voted for him,” he explains. “I asked for his help in many things, and he helped me a lot.” Despite my many queries, Rabbi Shemtov declined to expand on what happens inside the White House and at his meetings with Bush. “For obvious reasons,” he winks.
In 5761, Bush and his wife visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. It was on Taanis Esther. Before the visit, Bush wanted to study the subject in depth and hear about the Jewish Holocaust. Towards this end, he summoned Rabbi and Mrs. Levi Shemtov to the White House.
“We sat for long hours and talked about the subject of the Holocaust,” Rabbi Shemtov recounts. “He was noticeably moved. He asked us with tears in his eyes to watch a movie with him about an American diplomat who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. The movie showed terrible sights. The Jewish Holocaust deeply touched his heart.”
After the movie, Bush asked Rabbi Shemtov to offer a prayer in memory of the six million Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust. “It’s really not an easy feeling saying “Keil Malei Rachamim” in the White House. On the other hand, it was an uplifting feeling that specifically the day before Purim on which Mordechai HaYehudi was able to get into the king’s palace and obtain the possibility of changing the decrees, I was sitting with the defender of the Jews in America and fighting for their sake.”
In just a few weeks, George W. Bush will end his second term in the White House. Rabbi Levi Shemtov stands to part from a good friend. “His support for Jews is great, and it seems to me that the fruits of this will only be seen in a few years,” says Rabbi Shemtov. “I think that he is the best and warmest president for American Jews thus far. Even though Jews don’t always like him politically, he has done a lot of things whose results we’ll only see in the future. He expanded government help for Jewish organizations, he is a warm man with heart, he’s polished, and he always is interested in getting the big picture.”
When I ask how the President reacts when informed of various events in Israel, Rabbi Shemtov declined to comment. “My function is not diplomacy or politics. In the world of Judaism there is no state ideology,” he opines. “I am not a diplomat in the world of Judaism—I am a Jew in the world of diplomacy. My purpose in the White House is to worry about who needs Arba Minim on Sukkos, Matzah on Pesach or the Megillah read on Purim. My mission is to represent the Jewish nation, and the personal ties that come with that are just a bonus.”
Despite the most burning question in the U.S. currently being who will assume the crown of the presidency after the upcoming elections, it doesn’t make much of a difference to Rabbi Shemtov. “Who the United States will choose, I am sure I will find a way for a joint project with him,” he says. He respects the Clinton family, knowing them from the last days of Bill Clinton’s White House term, but declines to express a firm opinion on who he supports for the presidency.
“We have not a little power in the political world, but we don’t mix into politics itself. We just try to influence from inside,” Rabbi Shemtov concludes.