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Friday, July 28, 2006

In D.C.’s political maelstrom, Chabad man makes his mark

By Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON (JTA) -- Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Chabad’s representative in Washington, bears certain similarities to the menorah whose lighting he engineers each year on the White House lawn: big, warm, and impossible to ignore.

What makes Shemtov remarkable is that in his 12 years of dealing with the world’s most powerful power brokers, few seem to consider him overbearing.

“We have nothing in common except love of Judaism and love of politics — and it’s not the same Judaism and not the same politics — but we’re still very good friends,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a former Clinton administration official and a longtime consultant to the Reform and Conservative movements.

Shemtov’s Washington profile is a clear mark of Chabad’s transformation in the past three decades from an insular Chasidic sect to a player working the Jewish spectrum.

Shemtov has parlayed goodwill into a powerful voice for Chabad’s interests — not all of which meet universal Jewish approval — especially in lobbying for Chabad’s entry in force into vulnerable Jewish communities in Europe and Asia.

Shemtov has assiduously cultivated Washington-based diplomats from those regions. A Washington ambassadorship often is a stepping stone to a top job at the Foreign Ministry in the diplomats’ home countries, so the ties Shemtov cultivates translate into greater influence for Chabad abroad.

At one recent event Shemtov hosted, a U.S. diplomat whispered to a German newcomer in Washington’s diplomatic corps, “Do you know Rabbi Shemtov?”

“No,” said the German, “but I intend to.”

The American nodded. “Rabbi Shemtov knows everyone.”

It’s not an advantage that Shemtov’s competitors enjoy, but at least in Washington, they cede the territory to him.

In the former Soviet Union, Chabad has “a presence on the ground in a way that no one else does,” said one lobbyist who works the same officials as Shemtov.

Not long ago, Shemtov pressed hard for a meeting between Chabad emissaries and State Department officers to discuss religious freedom in the FSU. The diplomats realized they were hearing new information and, one by one, pulled out their notebooks.

Mark Levin, the executive director for NCSJ, a group that works on behalf of all the Jewish streams in the FSU, says Shemtov’s advocacy has never rubbed him the wrong way.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like him,” Levin said.

A measure of Shemtov’s popularity is the on-the-record praise from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the huge pro-Israel lobby.

“Rabbi Levi Shemtov is a Washington institution,” AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr told JTA. “At the White House, on Capitol Hill and throughout the Jewish and political communities, Rabbi Shemtov is a constant and valuable presence.”

Calling a 37-year-old an institution may seem extraordinary. Shemtov’s influence derives not from promises of votes or cash, but from an unerring instinct about whom to cultivate.

His best work is done at dinners he hosts at his residence with his Australian-born wife, Nechama. The couple has six children.

Shemtov inherited the job from his father Abraham, the movement’s Philadelphia-based envoy to Washington during the Reagan administration. Levi Shemtov established the Washington office.

Domestically, Shemtov’s influence means Chabad assumes a higher profile than its tiny fraction of the American Jewish population would warrant: Chabad rabbis are fixtures at meetings with President Bush, and though many Jews did charitable work in New Orleans during the past hurricane season, Chabad was one of the few to earn a presidential mention for it.

“One of those rescued from New Orleans put it this way: In the days after Katrina hit, ‘Chabad saved lives,’ ” the Republican Jewish Coalition said at its 20th anniversary event.

Big, bearded, and in Chabad’s black uniform, Shemtov is the most visible Jewish presence at non-Jewish events, from the presidential inauguration to the crowded little meet-and-greets that are a staple of Washington life.

“He is an extremely able and effective advocate who knows how to get things done on Capitol Hill and throughout Washington,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the Democratic whip, told JTA.

The exigencies of Washington have forced Shemtov to embrace even those with differing worldviews. One week he appears at a get-together for Jewish Democrats; the next he’s helping to prep an event for the RJC.

“I hang out at the intersection of Jewish life and the public square,” Shemtov told JTA “Most of the Jewish community doesn’t affiliate with anybody.”

That’s inevitable in a town where most folks have come from someplace else and are planning to stay only a few years.

“Most Chabad emissaries have their territory defined geographically,” said Nathan Diament, who heads the Orthodox Union office in Washington. “Levi exists more on a virtual geography.”

Chabad’s office — Shemtov calls it Chabad’s embassy, and the building even has its own flag — is on busy Dupont Circle. Shemtov realizes some worshippers drive or take the subway for holiday and Shabbat services, but he doesn’t ask questions.

“While I wouldn’t compromise on what Yiddishkeit is, I believe there needs to be an opening to wherever people are in their lives,” he said.

Other attempts to organize Washington’s transient political Jewish community have fallen by the wayside, Rabinowitz said.

“While they should be getting it from others more in the mainstream, the fact is they’re not — and at least they’re getting it from him,” he said.

Shemtov is close to Ari Fleischer, the former White House spokesman, though Shemtov was disturbed when Fleischer married a non-Jewish woman in 2002. That didn’t stop Fleischer from including Chabad as a part of an “Axis of Good” in subsequent speeches.

Bipartisan goodwill for Shemtov earned the last Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a rare congressional gold medal in 1994, the year he died.

Earlier this month, the Bush administration turned to Shemtov and the Orthodox Union for its first-ever kosher Chanukah party.

Shemtov insists his primary concern is outreach to local Jews, but it’s clear he plays an important role in raising Chabad’s profile internationally. He and the German ambassador co-hosted a commemoration this month of 60 years of Germany’s post-Holocaust Jewish community.

Shemtov’s highest profile event is still the Menorah lighting on the White House lawn. This year the honors will go to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who is Jewish.

It’s a brazen mark of influence, especially as the menorah lighting claims to speak for an American Jewish community that traditionally has been uncomfortable with displays of belief on public land.

Shem tov acknowledges that influence goes both ways, and suggests Chabad is becoming more open to other perspectives.

“My dream is that Jews from various influences and affiliations might find a more common language,” he said. “The biblical Menorah, with all its branches, was hewn from one piece.”

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