Friday, July 28, 2006

From the Archives: Jerusalem Post


Janine Zacharia

Nestled into a hillside on Leroy Place in downtown Washington D.C., adjacent to the Embassy of Guinea and a few steps from the Nepalese and Colombian delegations, sits a diplomatic mission of a different sort.

The flag flying high outside this four-story, refurbished brick building could easily be mistaken for the mark of an African or Asian embassy, dozens of which dot the upscale, tree-lined area. But this particular flag is no country's emblem. It is the symbol of American Friends of Lubavitch - the dynamic Brooklyn-based hassidic movement also known as Habad.

The heart of Embassy Row might seem like an unconventional place for the Lubavitch movement's Washington headquarters, but Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the Washington director, is hardly a conventional guy. And given the nature of his job, the location could not be more appropriate.

For seven years the 32-year-old father of four from Philadelphia has carried out Habad's traditional mission of making Judaism available to the unaffiliated, especially to young, time-strapped Jewish congressional aides who, swept up in Washington's political whirlwind, frequently lose touch with their heritage.

"In political Washington, it's very easy to get caught up in your day job," says Ari Fleischer, Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush's spokesman, who met Shemtov while working for a Republican senator from New Mexico. "Your focus can wander from your religion. He made it easy for me to find even more of a Jewish life on the Hill."

Adds Thomas Kahn, House Budget Committee Democratic Staff Director and a frequent guest at Shemtov's Shabbat dinners, which famously bring together Jews who could be natural political adversaries on CNN's Crossfire during the week: "There's nobody who is more widely respected and warmly received in Congress, the administration, and the diplomatic corps. A large part of it is just his force of personality and also a tribute to Habad."

But beyond reaching out to staffers, spreading yiddeshkeit via construction of a succa and menora on the National Mall, hosting an annual Purim reading on Capitol Hill, or offering High Holiday services free of charge or membership fee, Shemtov has become known both as a fixture on the diplomatic circuit and one of the most savvy politicos in town.

"If he didn't have a faith-based calling," says Fleischer "he would be one of the premier lobbyists."

SHEMTOV'S FUNCTIONS seem limitless. Some days he can be seen in the halls of Congress, cornering a legislator on an issue of concern to one of the 560 Lubavitch centers spread across the US. On other occasions, he arranges meetings between legislators and Habad visitors from their home state, or helps a puzzled senator's aide draft an appropriate greeting to send for the opening of a new synagogue or yeshiva somewhere.

But even more often his eye, or, more precisely, his ear (his mobile and office phones provide a constant blare), is attuned to problems facing shlihim abroad, emissaries of the Habad movement, from Lithuania to Latin America, who were sent by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to sustain Jewish communities in some of the most remote parts of the planet.

These troubles have led him to accumulate a Palm Pilot-full of contacts that have nearly exceeded the machine's two-megabyte memory capacity and to nurture relationships with dozens of ambassadors and State Department officials - and have turned him into a regular, if not obligatory, invitee to dozens of dinners, soirees, and ceremonies around town each week.

"In a certain sense he plays a role of quasi-diplomat," says Nathan Diament, director of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

Until last year, Shemtov held most of his power meetings over a meal at home, or at the Jewish Community Center's dairy restaurant. Then the first kosher meat restaurant, L'Etoile, opened in D.C., where Shemtov can be seen four or five times a week at his specially-reserved table.

"Shmoozing," Shemtov says, "is one of the most important things you have to know how to do in D.C."

Talk to Republican and Democratic congressmen (both Jewish and non-Jewish), ambassadors, State Department officials, policy wonks, and Jewish leaders envious of his access to people of power, and they will all tell you the same thing: he is one of the best political operators in town. So good that Democratic vice presidential nominee, Senator Joseph Lieberman - who referred lovingly to Shemtov as a "younger brother" - quipped memorably at the opening of the new Chabad building last year, "As I watch you negotiate the various politicians, my gratitude is that you didn't move to Connecticut and decide to go into politics."

IT IS a typical Monday in Shemtov's office, only today he has asked his assistant to hold all calls, except one from his father Avraham. Before Levi moved to D.C. in 1993, his father ran the operation from his base in Philadelphia, visiting once or twice a week, sometimes accompanied by his son.

Inside his sun-drenched office, one finds a casual mix of the ethereal and the earthly. Jewish texts and writings of the rebbe are stacked neatly on a bookshelf that features photos of Shemtov alongside politicians including former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a close personal friend. On the walls are pictures of Shemtov and a bipartisan array of other VIPs including President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

A new super-slim Samsung computer monitor, a gift from his Australia-born wife Nechama, sits atop his beautiful, dark wood desk. Beside it lies a charger for the cell phone that hangs on his belt beside his pager.

Images of Schneerson abound.

Shemtov's assistant enters hurriedly and places a paper with a sketch on his desk.

"I think it has to have the honey dripping into a shofar," Shemtov points out, running his finger across a draft of an advertisement for Rosh Hashana services that will run in local newspapers - just one of the many details that pack Shemtov's days and nights.

One day in Shemtov's office illustrates the sometimes chaotic nature of his work.

Five minutes after he sits down, the phone rings. It is the Habad emissary in Uzbekistan asking Shemtov when he is coming to visit.

A few months ago the Uzbekistan government would only grant the Lubavitch a 30-day visa. Aware of the problem, Shemtov invited the foreign minister to a catered lunch when he was in town. At the meeting, Shemtov recalled his special fondness for Uzbekistan, through which his family had escaped the Nazi genocide. He brought up the visa problem, an issue about which the minister had gotten an earful during meetings at the National Security Council, the State Department, and the American Embassy in Tashkent.

THE FOREIGN minister promised to take care of it and the next morning the shaliah in Uzbekistan called Shemtov to thank him. He had received a visa for one year.

The next call is from Moscow, wondering if Shemtov will be coming to the dedication of the new Lubavitch community center with featured speaker, President Vladimir Putin. Shemtov pulls out a massive file on Moscow, and eyes a note to himself on his desk, a reminder to get a letter of congratulations from Republican Congressman Ben Gilman and Democratic Congressman Sam Gejdenson to take with him on the trip, a small but crucial detail, he says.

"They were there to condemn the Russian government when things were wrong, so now we should ask them for congratulations when things are right," he says.

From beneath the pile of papers, Shemtov pulls out a pamphlet on the October conference on looted assets to be held in Lithuania, which he is considering attending. But he has more than Holocaust-era property on his mind.

The Lubavitch rabbi in Vilnius is struggling with local authorities to reclaim a synagogue/school that was seized by the Nazis, which is now owned by the government. Roughly 120 Jewish children study in a different piece of prime real estate in the center of town, which the Lubavitch would happily trade for the old synagogue. Shemtov will lunch with the Lithuanian ambassador tomorrow to see if he really needs to make the trip.

Next up: Slovakia. Residents in Bratislava, which does not yet have enough children to establish its own school, want to send them to religious institutions in nearby Vienna while still receiving credit from the Slovak school system. To do so, the Education Minister needs to give a waiver. In a few hours, Shemtov will attend a reception sponsored by the Slovak embassy to try to sort things out, but a trip will probably be in order.

Next week's schedule is starting to take shape. Moscow on Monday. Tuesday to Ukraine for a separate yeshiva dedication. Wednesday night to Bratislava.

Thursday to Vienna and Friday back home in time for the Sabbath, complete with services and 20 guests for dinner. As the day progresses, calls come in from a different set of time zones. One from Chile, about an attempt by Latin American Habad branches to put together an anti-poverty network, is followed by another from Argentina, about the upcoming Argentine president's visit to Washington. Then a local matter - a New York rabbi wants to arrange a weekend for Jewish singles in D.C. after the High Holy Days.

WHILE intrigued by politics as a boy, Shemtov's interest in the intersection of religion and public life began in Australia, where he studied for his smicha, or religious ordination. At only 19, he organized a massive Hanuka celebration to coincide with Australia's bicentennial. He arranged for a 30-foot menora to be placed on the prime minister's lawn and chartered airplanes painted with a rainbow-colored "Air Hanukka" logo to fly Jews to the capital, Canberra, where few Jews live. Shemtov remembers the excitement of meeting his first world leader.

More than a decade later, he is in regular contact with a few dozen ambassadors. Twenty-five, he says proudly, came to the Habad building's dedication, which was also attended by Lieberman, other members of Congress, the mayor of D.C., and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. Habad had to move to the new location after outgrowing several others. He mulls a question about why diplomats, administration officials, and congressmen are so available to him.

"Probably they understand that it doesn't hurt for them to be seen helping," he says.

On the Hill, he adds, even the non-Jewish congressmen, "like it when they see a rabbi march in from Oklahoma or Texas or something. They say, 'I'm interested in knowing what you guys do.'" Two years ago, Shemtov hosted a model Passover seder for legislators, both Jewish and non-Jewish. But overall, Shemtov limits his outreach to Jews. "We're not here to educate non-Jews about Judaism unless they ask to know. We have enough work cut out for us as it is," he says.

"There are many times, however, when people who are not Jewish need explanations of why we do things, especially with all this Lieberman mania." The day Lieberman was chosen as Al Gore's running mate, Shemtov fielded 130 calls. The pace has eased, but the interest has not dissipated. Just yesterday, he says, The Washingtonian, a glossy monthly, called to find out what it would take to make the vice presidential mansion kosher.

OTHERS HAVE asked how Lieberman can be pro-choice and Orthodox, or why he can't let someone drive him on the Sabbath if it is okay for someone else to turn on the lights for an observant Jew. Shemtov adds his own curiosities to the mix.

"I just wonder whether they couldn't get an electric car that would have a constant current in it. Maybe if the car goes slower when he comes in, it would be like an escalator," which Jews are permitted to ride on the Sabbath, Shemtov wonders while deferring a decision to greater experts.

A registered Independent, Shemtov feels gratified at Lieberman's selection. The two are friends, but he admits he has not yet decided how he will vote. He adds: "I feel relieved that America finally broke the barrier, and I'm further relieved that they broke it with someone who is visibly and obviously very committed to Judaism."

American Friends of Lubavitch was founded a quarter-century ago under President Gerald Ford. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed the rebbe's birthday, the 11th day of Nissan, "Education Day." And in 1995, Schneerson, after an exhausting push by Shemtov and others, became the first religious leader ever to be awarded America's highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal.

"I consider him part of us. If we could make him an honorary member of Congress, I would," says seven-term Democratic Congressman Benjamin Cardin.

"I've never met a person more upbeat, more uplifting than he is. He's a person who is always there, always reminding us how we can enjoy our religion, even on the most difficult days on Capitol Hill."

Asked if despite all of his recognition among legislators and diplomats he ever gets curious looks from pedestrians around town who are not as accustomed to seeing Orthodox Jews as New Yorkers, Shemtov says with a wink, "I try not to look like a schlepper. You have to remember you are an ambassador of your people wherever you are."

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