By Rabbi Levi Shemtov
Early Friday afternoon, I received a call inviting me to the White House to participate in a same-day signing ceremony for legislation authorizing $375 million in Homeland Security grants to help protect synagogues, churches, mosques and other places of worship. I replied that while I would love to attend, the late-afternoon timing was going to be dangerously close to the start of Shabbat.
About an hour later, the White House called back: It had reviewed the timing and the event would end earlier than it had thought.
So I accepted, with the explicit understanding that it would not be seen as disrespectful if I and a small number of other Jewish leaders needed to discreetly depart if the event was delayed for any reason — even if that meant leaving before the conclusion of President Trump’s remarks. The White House agreed.
Upon arriving, I was advised that the president might ask me to say a few words after he signed the bill, if time remained, and I should prepare something brief.
The event did end up running a little late, and ultimately there was no opportunity for any remarks.
Instead we were quickly escorted to the exit immediately after the president signed the bill, so we could make our way home before the sun set. Indeed, it did so only a few minutes after I arrived home.
Thankfully, I have had a number of opportunities to share my thoughts directly with the current president, as well as several of his predecessors. But those that went through my mind in the White House on Friday and prepared to share might have a significant relevance to the events both current and ancient.
Jews around the world were preparing to read the Torah portion Vayera the following day, which recalls the visit by Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh to beg him to free the Jewish people from slavery. He arrogantly refused their entreaties, setting the stage for the plagues upon his nation and the Jewish Exodus that later followed.
In 1942, hundreds of American rabbis and Jewish leaders arrived in Washington, hoping to petition President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to help end the Holocaust then raging in Europe. Like the Pharaoh of old, the president refused to see them or even hear their pleas.
Seventy-eight years later, the greatest power in the world invites American rabbis and Jewish leaders to participate in an event formalizing a broad new effort to help protect the freedom of Jews to be safe and secure as we worship and serve our creator. It doesn’t stop there: The president and his staff accommodate the needs of invited Jewish representatives who choose to keep Shabbat (and kashrut) and do not cause them to violate those in order to be accorded that appropriate recognition and welcome. For this we are indeed grateful.
Those are thoughts I would have shared with the president, and intend to do so at the next opportunity.
This is a difficult time in our country, with anti-Semitic attacks spiking to perhaps historic highs while the drama of impeachment cleaves the country along partisan lines. Still, there is a small bright spot present for us all, regardless of where we stand on the political spectrum. (Personally, I try to stand in the most difficult place, the bipartisan center. It often feels that almost no one agrees with that position these days.)
Let us recognize and cherish the bright spot of being an American Jew today: We have an unprecedented ability to practice our faith freely, even as we face the difficult challenges.
Let us bear in mind that just as world leaders gathered in Jerusalem to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and honor the sacred memory of the 6 million who perished in the Holocaust, we must take note of how dramatically different our political situation is in America today: We have unprecedented opportunity as Jews to participate fully in public life with respect accorded, literally at the highest levels, for our adherence to tradition.
We must honor memory, but we must also do more. We must own our power as Jews to ensure such a tragedy does not happen again. The living must ensure we carry forward the hopes and spirit of the lives so tragically lost. It takes real effort, but that is our awesome responsibility. As my mentor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory, taught us, one cannot just watch and remember; one must do. And because of them, we must do more.
Perhaps it would be a powerful initiative for every Jew today to do one more mitzvah just to honor one of those who perished and could no longer do so themselves. After all, today’s leading powers are standing there ready to help us do so with more security and without having to compromise who we are. We must use our freedom properly. WJW
Rabbi Levi Shemtov is the executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) in Washington.
—JTA News and Features