Chabad shaliach Rabbi Levi Shemtov straddles a bipartisan tightrope in a polarized capital
Photos: Eli Greengart | With reporting by Yossi Elituv & Shimon Breitkopf
At the end of February, days before the coronavirus pandemic would knock the world off its axis, Rabbi Levi Shemtov rose to speak before a packed house of Israel activists in Washington, D.C.
The upper floor of The Shul of the Nation’s Capital, as his Chabad center is called, was filled to capacity. Israel supporters from around the world had converged on Washington for the annual AIPAC policy conference, and about 180 of them joined Rabbi Shemtov for Shabbos dinner. College students passed around plates of vegetables and chicken in one corner, while entire families pulled apart challos in another. Regulars to the shul, the D.C. natives, as well as those who visit the shul on business trips, were interspersed among the crowd.
The din of conversation in the room was so loud that it was difficult to hear one’s tablemates, but that only added to the excitement of the moment. How often do so many Jews, united in one purpose, have the opportunity to spend Shabbos together in the nation’s capital?
Amid the buzz, Rabbi Shemtov stood up and, with apologies for the time it might take, asked everyone in the room to introduce themselves. What at first seemed like a burdensome chore was in the end revelatory. In that one room, which also serves as the congregational space on weekdays and Shabbos, there were Jews from every corner of the world: Venezuela, Australia, Austria, Canada, and England. All had traveled to Washington for AIPAC, and Rabbi Shemtov, like a conductor directing his orchestra, embellished their introductions with follow-up questions and insightful comments.
After about a quarter of the room had finished their introductions, a middle-aged woman stood up and explained that she too had come to Washington to lobby her congressional representative on behalf of AIPAC and Israel. But her personal story was different. She explained that she had made the trip to honor the memory of her son, a US soldier who was killed in combat in Iraq. In a halting voice, she described his heroism and his sweet smile, and the memories that would last a lifetime.
After she finished speaking, Rabbi Shemtov paused for a moment and thanked the woman for her heartfelt introduction. He then revealed that he too had lost a relative to wartime combat, his maternal grandfather, Eliezer Gershon Lazaroff, the father of his mother, Rebbetzin Batsheva Shemtov, who was killed while serving in the Russian military during World War II.
And then, a teaching moment on a subject in which Rabbi Shemtov, unfortunately, has become expert: “Does everyone know what a Gold-Star mom is?” he asked the Shabbos guests. A Gold-Star mom is one who has lost a son while serving in the US military. Their national headquarters in on the same block, and he had met many of them in his time representing Chabad in his nearly 30 years as the director of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad). These women are heroes, he said, their strength unimaginable. He then asked everyone in the room to stand up and salute the lost soldier’s courage and sacrifice.
“We need to remember that freedom is not free,” Rabbi Shemtov said after the applause from the guests had died down. “And so, we must remain mindful of those at the tip of the spear who do what they must, stateside and abroad, so we can do what we wish in freedom, especially as it relates to the practice of our faith.”
All in a day’s work for Rabbi Shemtov, who, besides representing the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s interests in the capital, is also the rabbi who oversees the kashering of the White House kitchen facilities for Jewish events, presides over the lighting ceremony of the enormous National Chanukah Menorah on the White House Ellipse, and serves as the rabbi of a shul attended by members of Congress and staff at the White House, including two key members, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. He also possesses a contact list that is the envy of every lobbyist in the nation’s capital and often serves as a go-to liaison when sticky problems arise for Jews worldwide. Rabbi Shemtov is, in a sense, American Jewry’s man in Washington, and though there are others who have similar roles, none of them can say they are following in the footsteps of their father.
In the Genes
Rabbi Shemtov was born in Philadelphia in 1968, the fifth child of Rabbi Avraham and Batsheva Shemtov. His father was personally appointed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson ztz”l, to represent Chabad-Lubavitch in Washington. Rabbi Shemtov was a young boy when his father started commuting from Philadelphia to serve in the nation’s capital in the 1970s, and remembers his first introduction to the political world.
“When I was about 14,” he recalls during a conversation in Washington, “I began to help my father organize programs for 11 Nissan — the Rebbe’s birthday and a prominent day in Chabad that is dedicated to chinuch,” an event that today is called Education and Sharing Day. “Senators and congressmen regularly attended the program in honor of that occasion and that was the first time I interacted with senior political officials.”
As a yeshivah bochur, Levi Shemtov would occasionally travel to Washington to help his father with various tasks, especially during Chanukah. But it was only later, after he married his wife Nechama and the Rebbe asked him to move to Washington full-time in the early ’90s that he took up his life’s work. (Today, Rabbi Avraham Shemtov serves as the chairman of Agudas Chassidei Chabad, the umbrella organization of the international Chabad-Lubavitch movement.)
Almost three decades later, Rabbi Levi Shemtov’s name is known throughout Washington: He has been called “the White House rabbi” and the “the rabbi of Capitol Hill.” But when asked to describe himself, he says simply, “I’m the senior shaliach of the Rebbe to Washington.”
He doesn’t have an official public role, but senators and congressmen see him as one of the most capable troubleshooters in the capital. “I don’t just give a political opinion, but rather try to share our position as Jews — especially if it involves something that is important to us. Most of the time it boils down to explanation and presentation. It can relate to shechitah, bris milah, prison matters, Shabbos, Homeland Security issues, travel regulations, or anything else,” he says.
In addition, Chabad emissaries from the 4,500 Chabad-Lubavitch centers worldwide often turn to him for help when issues arise in their communities. “Baruch Hashem, they don’t all call at the same time,” he said. “But on any given day, we can deal with up to 15 or 20 various pending matters in different places around the country and the world.”
It’s not only senators and congressmen and their aides who have found a friend in the energetic rav with the powerful voice. He has been close to American presidents for decades, from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to Barack Obama and Donald Trump. But beyond the political realm, Rabbi Shemtov also feels he has another important role to play.
“I feel that part of my mission is to introduce the Jewish holidays to the people in the White House, Capitol, Pentagon, and the international arena, as well as students, young professionals, and the general community, in a meaningful way. This is so that they should know what Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succos, Chanukah, Purim, Pesach, and Shavuos really are. It’s important for them to understand our traditions as well as our values.”
As such, he visits with government officials before almost every holiday to explain the significance of the upcoming day. (In addition to Jared and Ivanka, there are a number of high-ranking Jewish staff in the Trump administration, including Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, Senior Advisor to the President Stephen Miller, Assistant to the President and Special International Representative Avi Berkowitz, Senior VP Advisor Tom Rose, Assistant Treasury Secretaries Moishe [Mitch] Silk and David Eisner, Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, and others.)
During the first year of the Trump administration, Jewish White House staff who could not return home for Pesach turned to Rabbi Shemtov to organize a Seder at the White House on the first night of the holiday. He agreed, on one condition: that everything be completely kosher for Pesach and that they not just “go through the motions.” He explained that even a Jew who doesn’t keep the holiday and eats chometz is still obligated in a k’zayis of matzah on Pesach. The staffers ultimately agreed.
The Bipartisan Tightrope
Over the past few months, as COVID-19 has crept across the globe, Rabbi Shemtov has been fielding numerous requests from Chabad emissaries to raise issues of concern. Those include issues of burial during a pandemic, stranded Jews in faraway places, and addressing various diplomatic complications. “Sometimes there are unpredictable things that have come my way, and I have to try to give them 100 percent of my effort,” he says.
On the riots that have swept across the United States in the wake of the death of George Floyd, Rabbi Shemtov has fielded a number of inquiries from senior congressional and administration officials regarding safety and protection of Chabad and other institutions. He believes that now is a time for Americans to remember something fundamental about rights and responsibilities.
“The death of George Floyd was a terrible disaster, not only on a racial level but on a human level,” he says. “The protests are a fundamental exercise of our First Amendment rights, but they must be nonviolent and, to whatever extent possible, not devolve into a political war. Everyone is pent up, for months already, and the tension is understandable. But it’s at times like these when cooler heads must prevail. Violence just ruins it for everyone in the end.”
Rabbi Shemtov generally deals with matters as they arise, but there are a number of high-profile events that Chabad-Lubavitch in Washington organizes each year. In addition to an annual gala dinner that honors senior officials of both political parties, the lighting ceremony of the national menorah attracts attention from media across the country and always includes members of the cabinet and Congress, as well as senior White House staff. One side benefit, he says, is the opportunity to explain the Chanukah story to a national audience, which can run into millions.
“America wants to know who we are and why we do what we do,” he says, “and a respectful presentation helps foster friendship and understanding and reduces suspicion. When we’re out in the open and we explain what we do, Americans are generally quite receptive to the message.”
In this most partisan of times in Washington, Rabbi Shemtov says it’s important not to favor one party over another, but it’s not always easy. “Once, someone asked me what I do every day,” he says, “and I said I walk a tightrope over a cesspool in a straightjacket and I am expected to dance. It’s not easy navigating the differences between conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans.”
And that goes for how he interacts with nonobservant Jews as well. “Many Jewish people are materially affluent and spiritually homeless,” he says. “We try to reach them with openness.”
Howard Tzvi Friedman, the past president and chairman of the board of AIPAC and the current chairman of the board of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, describes Rabbi Shemtov as one of the most influential voices in Washington. “He’s done that by returning every call within the hour and by helping every person who needs to be helped, ” Friedman explains.
Equally impressive is how he moves with ease among the various “tribes” of American Jewry, adds William Daroff, the chief executive officer of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Orginizations. “He’s a dear friend and a wise counselor to me and many here in Washington and throughout the Jewish world,” Daroff says. “He reaches out to Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform and brings people together. He is someone who is trusted by all to move forward the Jewish communal agenda.”
Just the Right Words
He won’t reveal too much about the sensitive missions he has undertaken over the years, but it’s safe to say that through his efforts, he has improved the lives of Jews around the world. As one example, he tells the story of a senior litvishe askan who asked him to arrange a meeting with the chairman of a congressional committee that was deliberating a change that would profoundly impact his community. “Maybe he felt a bit unusual to be reaching out to a Chabad shaliach,” he says. “But we are personal friends and my response was, ‘We may have come here on separate ships, but we are now in the same boat. We need to watch out for one another.’
“We both came to the Capitol, met with the committee chairman, and actually resolved the matter. When we came out of the meeting, he asked me how I had been able to arrange a meeting so quickly. I replied that the Chabad shaliach in the congressman’s rural district is very close to a good friend of the congressman. And I had explained to the chairman’s staff that this matter was something that was ‘very important to Klal Yisrael’… but particularly to the rabbi who lives in the district. The follow-up call from the congressman’s friend sealed it.
“I think that’s an example that illustrates very well the relationship between the different communities in America,” he adds. “Each one has its various interests and hashkafos, of course, but ultimately, when people need introductions or connections, they reach out to me and I try to do whatever I can. I feel they would do the same for me.”
Rabbi Shemtov says he works regularly with other major American Jewish organizations, including Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox Union, and even a number of non-Orthodox groups and organizations on matters of communal concern.
Rabbi Shemtov has also succeeded in influencing various matters in foreign policy, sometimes in a roundabout way. About ten years ago, a special envoy of the Department of State was appointed to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, and a special reception was held on Capitol Hill, hosted by five organizations and attended by 160 diplomats.
“When it came my turn to speak, I noticed that the Saudi ambassador had arrived. You can’t miss such a thing, because there is no other ambassador with so many bodyguards, even more than the Israeli ambassador. I deliberated how to acknowledge his entrance. I decided to address him directly: ‘Your Excellency, you will surely go back to the kingdom soon and speak to His Majesty. Please tell him in the name of the Jewish People that we have nothing inherently against anyone. But there is a raging problem that began as anti-Semitism, which then became a “State of Israel” problem and then an “America” problem and then a “Western” problem. Now it has turned into a global issue that even threatens the throne of your own kingdom. I hope you and he appreciate that if you are with us, maybe we will all be able to better mitigate the problem. Perhaps the time has come that you shouldn’t see us as foes, but as people who want, together with you, to mitigate hatred universally.’ ”
Rabbi Shemtov recalls the silence in the hall; those in attendance felt that something significant had just happened. “When I finished, I got off the stage, and all the Arab ambassadors eagerly came to shake my hand.”
Indeed, he knows many of them well, and has told them in private conversation that peace and cooperation in the Middle East require the world to see Israel and the Jewish People not as some recent Western intrusion upon the region, but as a people and a nation who have been there for millennia.
“I cannot tell you how many times I’ve shared the first Rashi in the Torah — which underlines Hashem’s sovereignty over the world, including Eretz Yisrael and our true rights thereto,” he says. “And guess what? So many Arab diplomats with whom I share this are first intrigued, but then agree I have a real point, even if they would like to view it differently. It’s emotional and religious, but so are they.”
Years later, William Daroff remembers that event as the beginning of the opening between Arab Gulf States and Israel.
“I was at a historic meeting with the foreign minister of Bahrain in Rabbi Shemtov’s house,” Daroff adds.
Yet Rabbi Shemtov also stresses that what one doesn’t say is often as important as what one does. “Recently, a certain Arab foreign minister came to our house for dinner with a few other Arab diplomats. One of them saw a piece of art that I bought in Meah Shearim years ago with the pasuk ‘Im eshkachech Yerushalayim tishkach yemini,’ in gold Hebrew lettering. He studied the work for a while and then asked, ‘Rabbi, this is beautiful, what does it say here?’ I replied, ‘I’ll tell you another time, it’s a little complicated….’ I knew that if I told him right then and there, it would lead to unnecessary contention, and I try to avoid unnecessary situations. In my role, you need to be discerning about these things, take your time to properly relay information, and not just throw chassidishe verter from the farbrengen at someone who might not appreciate or be ready for it. With time, any message is possible to convey, but you must bear in mind the recipient.”
Rabbi Shemtov’s shul is relatively small, but it is like a second home to numerous senior government officials. Each Shabbos, about 100 people daven there, but during the Yamim Tovim and Yamim Noraim, a few hundred can be in attendance. “If you come during the Yamim Noraim you’ll hardly be able to get in,” he says. “On Purim last year, 800 people came to celebrate.”
Among former officials who frequented the shul during their time in Washington are Senator Joe Lieberman, White House Chief of Staff and later Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, and others. Among the shul’s current attendees are Assistant Treasury Secretary Moishe Silk, Assistant Treasury Secretary David Eisner, and Assistant to the President Avi Berkowitz.
Rabbi and Rebbetzin Shemtov regularly host a large Shabbos table in their home. In addition to their seven children, the Shemtovs also invite diplomats, academics, communal figures, and government officials to share a Shabbos meal. And there are almost always Jewish students.
“We work a lot with Jewish students and young professionals here because I believe that they are our future,” he explains. “And if they are the emerging generation, then what can be more important for them than to see a real Jewish home? My feeling is that if young people see Jewish people with pride in their Yiddishkeit, that is one of the best things that can come out of our role here. ”
Rebbetzin Nechama Shemtov is a powerhouse in her own right. In addition to partnering and supporting her husband, she founded and leads Aura Jewish Women, which works “to bring prominent Jewish women in our nation’s capital closer to their heritage and to each other.” A virtual class she recently delivered attracted close to 4,000 viewers.
Rabbi and Rebbetzin Shemtov are already training the third generation of public representatives, or shluchim, to Washington. Their sons-in-law and daughters are active in community shlichus, and son Rabbi Menachem Shemtov recently joined them after learning in kollel in Eretz Yisrael.
“In some ways, I feel he will be better than I was because in contrast to me, who as a child was interested in but hardly involved in what was happening in Washington, my children already know how to do this work. They have observed us closely for more than 25 years,” Rabbi Shemtov says. “I didn’t do the Seder in the White House two years ago — they did. I conducted the communal Seder in our shul. While I did that, my children shared all the explanations and commentaries at the White House Seder, like a small shiur. Then they performed the Seder as soon as the zeman allowed. It worked out really well.”
Rabbi Shemtov is pleased that his children feel so comfortable around political figures, but not for the reason one might expect. “The truth is that I don’t want them to be so taken by the prestige of another human being,” he says. “I think that one of the basic things that helps me in my shlichus is the fact that, baruch Hashem, I’m not really afraid of anyone and don’t live with a sense of being overly impressed by the figures that I am privileged to meet. It’s good because it helps protect me from situations where I would feel I cannot say what I feel needs to be said.”
He is thoughtful for a moment and then adds candidly: “I aspire to convey to our children the feeling that even when you are surrounded by the most influential people in the world, your true fear has to be only from the King of Kings.”
He says that despite more than two decades on the job, he still feels excited about his job when he wakes up each morning. “The day I don’t feel that,” he says, “will be the day Hashem decides I have completed my shlichus.”
Just Like Everyone Else
This past Yom Kippur, an elderly woman entered Rabbi Shemtov’s shul, and slowly made her way through the women’s section. She walked with difficulty, and there were no seats available (Rabbi Shemtov’s shul offers complimentary seats, with payment voluntary.) But none of the women noticed her — aside from Ivanka Trump, who was sitting in the front row.
“As soon as she noticed the elderly woman, she stood and gave up her own seat,” Rabbi Shemtov says. “[Ivanka] remained standing for the rest of the tefillah, even though it was a fast day. Others offered her their seats, but she declined.
“I was very moved by that episode. It’s easy to conduct yourself properly when you’re under the glare of cameras and lights and media. But to do so on Yom Kippur, when no one is photographing or following you shows something about your internal qualities. Later I was told that it also made a deep impression on many other young women praying there.”
Rabbi Shemtov says the Kushners first came to the shul shortly after President Trump’s inauguration and he was immediately impressed by their humility. “They tend to avoid honors and just blend into the shul with the other mispallelim. They come in like everyone else [their significant security detail maintains a respectful distance], and make time to speak to everyone, and their children play with the other kids. They really don’t play up their status. And people appreciate that.”
How to Make a Toast During the Nine Days
It isn’t always easy to be a chassidic Jew in Washington, where there isn’t a large Orthodox community, but Rabbi Shemtov always dresses the part — in a suit and a hat — and is careful about halachah in every circumstance. That has led to a few amusing incidents.
Several years ago, during the Nine Days, Rabbi Shemtov was invited to a dinner at the home of one of the ambassadors in Washington. The catering for the entire meal would be mehadrin and the menu would include fish and chalav Yisrael dairy, enabling the rabbi to avoid eating meat during the Nine Days.
But a few days before the event, he was informed that he was expected to make a toast with the mevushal wine that the ambassador’s staff had ordered for the evening. What to do?
“I contacted the ambassador and explained to him that during the Nine Days I may not drink wine, but I could choose to make a l’chayim on iced tea. I further explained that I could make a l’chayim on wine, on one condition. I would have to conduct a siyum maseches during the event. The ambassador was quiet for a few long moments, and finally told me that if I could promise that the siyum would not take long, and I would explain to everyone why I was doing it, then it was fine with him.
“And that’s what happened,” Rabbi Shemtov recalls. “I got to the dinner, and about 30 rather important people were seated around the tables. They were very surprised when I made a siyum on a masechta I had learned. I explained to them that this was a halachic solution that enabled me to drink wine, when it would otherwise be prohibited, and the guests listened attentively.
“Half a year passed, and one day, I came to the White House to discuss a very complicated international issue. When it was my turn to speak, I agreed that it wasn’t an easy matter, and that I wasn’t sure how to resolve it. Suddenly, one of the people there — a senior official who had also been a guest at that dinner in the ambassador’s residence — turned to me and said ‘Rabbi, do me a favor. You found a solution for how to drink wine on a day when Jews are not normally allowed to do so. Can’t you find a solution to this problem?’ ”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 815)
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