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Friday, July 28, 2006

Archive: Tucson rabbi attends recent White House briefing

By Connie Marcovich, Special to the AJP

As the United States Marine band played Chanukah music, Rabbi Yossie Shemtov of Tucson waited in line with his wife, Chanie. They were about to be introduced to President George W. Bush and the first lady at a Chanukah event held in Washington last month.

Handshakes are a routine part of the protocol accompanying such momentous occasions, but for the Shemtovs -- Lubavitchers and spiritual leaders of Chabad of Tucson and Congregation Young Israel -- belief and custom trump political protocol. When the Shemtovs explained to a Marine that the couple would only shake hands with persons of the same gender, the soldier seemed flustered but assured them there would be no problem, Shemtov said in a recent interview.

Following the formal introductions and photo-taking session, the Shemtovs apologized to the Marine for "throwing a monkey wrench in the procedure." Much to the rabbi's pleasure, the soldier informed them that after he conveyed the Shemtovs' wishes, the first lady took the time to explain to him the Lubavitcher tradition.

As Rabbi Shemtov tells this story, it's evident how pleased he was that Laura Bush was aware of the custom. It's also clear that the rabbi was impressed with what he heard during the one-hour briefing that followed the Chanukah party, particularly relating to Bush's position on Israel and his policy on faith-based initiatives.

"He is totally committed to the security of everyone in Israel," Shemtov said, adding that the president made it clear he was not moving from the position articulated in the Rose Garden speech delivered in June. In that address, Bush called for a two-state solution, new Palestinian leadership and an end to support for terrorist organizations.

As for the president's support for faith-based initiatives, Shemtov believes this springs from Bush's vision of charitable programs providing more "warmth" for their recipients as well as allowing more "personal freedom."

This was the first time the Shemtovs met the president, and the rabbi has no idea why they were chosen to participate. "I cannot tell you. I must have been chosen from a Chabad group list. I didn't do anything special," he said. To the best of the rabbi's knowledge, he and his wife were the only Jewish leaders present from Arizona.

After accepting a written invitation to the Chanukah event, Shemtov received a telephone call inviting him to participate in the briefing. Approximately 300 guests participated in the party, but the briefing, held in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, was limited to only 15 or 16 people, Shemtov said.

Though representatives reflected the full spectrum of Jewish beliefs, the event was not limited to religious leaders. Members of the business and professional community also were in attendance. "I would say 50 percent of the participants were fund raisers, but I may be wrong," said Shemtov.

The president had prepared remarks for the briefing, but never referred to them, according to Shemtov. "We were able to hear whatever the president says in public, but from his core beliefs," he said.

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