Pay-back time for Jewish supporters of the President

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By now, many people have figured out from where came many of the new Jewish votes for the President. Has anyone in higher places taken note?

The answer, according to Eve Kessler’s report in The Forward, is a resounding “Yes!” At a variety of gatherings recently, it is clear that the President has warmed up to the Orthodox community, and distanced himself from members of the establishment Jewish community who would sooner eat a BLT on Yom Kippur than vote Republican.

An intimate December 9 meeting between the president and 15 communal leaders featured 10 Orthodox rabbis, one Orthodox rebbetzin, four Reform rabbis and not one Conservative Jew. The 500-person White House Hanukkah party, held later that night, was choc-a-bloc with Orthodox Jews in beards, hats and yarmulkes, according to participants. And the family of a Lubavitch chaplain stationed in Iraq had the honor of lighting the Hanukkah menorah at a White House candle-lighting ceremony.

If the President, as friend and foe reportedly agree, is sending a message that he understands who supported him and who didn’t, then the vision and energy of one of Cross-Current’s own has been richly rewarded. The man who engineered the national Orthodox campaign for President Bush is none other than Jeff Ballabon, one of our senior bloggers. This augurs well for the rest of us getting some insider perspective on how Torah interests are faring in Washington.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Avi Shafran released an ingenious and moving contrast between one of the recent receptions for frum Jews in the White House, and the more tragic non-meeting of Holocaust period Jewish luminaries with FDR. Back then as well more “progressive” elements in the Jewish community put their own agenda ahead of authentic Torah interests.

His article follows:

On October 6, 1943, more than 400 American rabbis made an unprecedented appearance at the White House, in the hope that they might help convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help rescue Jewish refugees during the final months of what, it had become clear, was the attempted annihilation of European Jews by the Nazis and their friends. Immigration of European Jews was at a trickle, and even permitted quotas were not being filled.

The march was the brainchild of Jewish activist Peter Bergson, the adopted name of Hillel Kook, the nephew of Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine (Bergson died in Israel in 2001). The marchers had been recruited, though, largely through the Va’ad HaHatzalah, an Orthodox group headed by European-born Torah scholars, the sort of people who, in normal circumstances, would never involve themselves in public affairs, and certainly not in any that might seem aggressive. But circumstances were anything but normal, and so the men – who included rabbinic figures like Rabbi Eliezer Silver and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, as well as an array of Hassidic rebbes of the time, followed their religious consciences.

The “Rabbis’ March” raised hackles, however, among some American Jewish groups, like the American Jewish Congress; and some legislators, like Representative Sol Bloom of New York, the chairman of the House International Affairs Committee. Early on, he reportedly tried to dissuade the march’s organizers by telling them it would be undignified for a group of such un-American-looking people to appear in Washington, a comment that only served to nearly double the number of participants.

Arriving first at the Capitol, the rabbis were met by Vice President Henry Wallace, who, Time magazine reported, “squirmed through a diplomatically minimum answer” to their plea.

From there, the rabbis went to the Lincoln Memorial, where they offered prayers for the welfare of the President, America’s soldiers and the Jews of Europe. After singing the national anthem, they proceeded to the White House where they hoped a small delegation from among them would be received by President Roosevelt himself.

They were destined for disappointment. Presidential secretary, Marvin McIntyre informed them that the President was unavailable “because of the pressure of other business.”

According to the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, the President’s schedule was, in fact, “remarkably open that afternoon.” His daily calendar “listed nothing in between a 1:00 lunch with the Secretary of State and a 4:00 departure for a ceremony at an airfield outside Washington.” The reason Mr. Roosevelt declined to meet any of the rabbis, the Wyman Institute’s research revealed, was because his speechwriter and adviser Samuel Rosenman (a prominent member of the American Jewish Committee) and Dr. Stephen Wise (president of the American Jewish Congress, and the leading Reform rabbi of the time) had urged him to avoid the group. Mr. Rosenman, according to a presidential aide, characterized the marchers as “a group of rabbis who just recently left the darkest period of the medieval world”; Dr. Wise derided the “orthodox rabbinical parade” as offensive to “the dignity of [the Jewish] people.” President Roosevelt left the White House through a rear door.

Fast-forward 61 years, to the second day of the Chanukah just past. A small group of rabbis and educators, mostly Orthodox, traveled to the White House to meet with President Bush – at the President’s invitation.

The meeting, according to one of the attendees, Rabbi Reuven Drucker, the rabbi of the Agudath Israel of Highland Park synagogue in New Jersey, had been scheduled for a half-hour. Instead, it extended more than twice that long. The President warmly greeted each visitor, addressed a number of geopolitical and domestic issues of interest and entertained questions from his guests. Rabbi Drucker was particularly impressed with the Mr. Bush’s “energy” and “friendliness.”

Several organizational representatives from Agudath Israel’s national office, Washington office and two regional offices also arrived at the White House later that day, having been invited to that evening’s Chanukah celebration, an annual event President Bush instituted during his first term. One of them, meeting Rabbi Drucker at the celebration, asked him how the meeting had gone.

The New Jersey congregational leader spoke of how impressed he had been with Mr. Bush, and provided some details about the interaction between the guests and the President. “When the meeting was over,” he said, “we actually had a minyan for Mincha.” A quorum, that is, for afternoon prayers. Then he added, “I couldn’t help but think about how different things were back in the War years, about how far our country has come.”

It was, and remains, a point worth pondering. As is the irony that the President’s meeting with the rabbis had originally been scheduled to take place in the Roosevelt Room. Fittingly, though, some last-minute logistical glitch required it, along with Mincha, to be moved to another location.

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5 Responses

  1. Mandel says:

    For decades the secular community had their say in Washington politics. It’s paramount that the Orthodox community be fully involved in state and national politics.

  2. It’s worth reading this account from last year of a meeting between quite a few Rabbis (of different denominations) and the President.

  3. yussie says:

    Stephen Wise YM’S was a menuvel as testified to by a female gentile writer of that era in her memoirs. In addition. he hated anything that was remotely Orthodox. He was admired by all the media of that era and was considered the spokesman for American Jewry. Naturally Roosevelt listened to him.

  4. Nachum says:

    Perhaps because FDR was an anti-Semite and felt comfortable (barely) only around Jews who weren’t “too” Jewish and didn’t bring up Jewish issues? See Ben Hecht’s autobiography for more details.

    And if one’s agenda is what’s right, well, that’s icing on the cake.

  5. Hanan says:

    Very interesting article. Certainly if this article regarding FDR’s aides telling him not to meet with the rabbis is true, you can’t help but wonder why? Is it because they just dident want “old world” jews coming into the US and joining the orthodox band wagon? Or is it something else. Everyone has an agenda. The scary part is when you pick your agenda over what is right.