WASHINGTON (JTA) — Chabad emissaries usually associate Washington with their emphasis on education, but this year they got a taste of foreign policy suasion while handing out some, too.
Hundreds of emissaries from across the United States and the world descended on the U.S. capital for two days last week for a conference organized by American Friends of Lubavitch.
The highlight of the visit was a “drop-in” while the group was meeting with White House officials on June 17: Vice President Joe Biden came by the Old Executive Office Building conference hall and stayed for 40 minutes.
Biden acknowledged Rabbi Avraham Shemtov, the Philadelphia-based leader of the movement who befriended Biden during his decades-long tenure as Delaware senator.
The vice president reviewed Chabad teachings he had acquired over the years, including the necessity of combining "wisdom, knowledge and understanding," and related them to the administration’s handling of the Middle East.
Biden suggested that the threat posed by Iran necessitated intensive peacemaking and it was important for the Jewish community to understand that context.
“As you’ve always taught me, the rebbe said, what we do for one day isn’t enough for the next day,” Biden said.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Avraham Shemtov’s son who heads American Friends of Lubavitch, said that Biden’s framing of the issue with a Chabad precept touched those in the room “who might not see him eye to eye” on the issue.
“He resonated not as a condescending politician but rather as a real friend who was deeply anxious about certain developments,” Levi Shemtov said.
Shemtov was on the giving end of political persuasion the day previous, when no official from the Turkish Embassy appeared at a luncheon designed to couple the emissaries with diplomats from their countries.
Shemtov called the embassy and spoke to the deputy chief of mission, Suleyman Gokce.
“I asked him, ‘Are you trying to send a message to all the Jews in the world?’ ” Shemtov said. He referred to concerns that recent Turkey-Israel tensions would reverberate on Turkey’s Jewish community.
Gokce arrived at the cavernous Andrew Mellon Hall, along the National Mall, in time and took his seat next to the Istanbul emissary, Rabbi Mendy Citrik.
Shemtov took the microphone to welcome him.
“I say to you, we discussed your presence today and whether your chair next to your colleague would be empty,” he said. “I hope that you will go back and take a message to your mission, to the ambassador, the foreign minister, to the prime minister and the president, all of whom we have met over the years. We want to once again have that warm relationship of centuries, and we hope that the current difficulties will subside in due course.”
As a consequence, Murad Mercan, the chairman of the Turkish parliament’s foreign affairs committee who happened to be in Washington, attended the dinner that evening with Elie Wiesel. The Holocaust memoirist and Nobel Peace laureate focused his talk on remembering Mendel Menachem Schneerson, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s late rebbe.
The conference also included a breakfast with top Congress members, including Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and John Boehner (R-Ohio), respectively the majority and minority leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The days were marked as well by a typical Chabad phenomenon: Top government officials getting mushy about Judaism.
Jack Lew, the deputy secretary of state, abjured diplospeak at the luncheon and instead shared the difficulties of an Orthodox Jew serving a 24/7 political culture.
And after a briefing on education – the movement’s signature issue, recognized each March by a White House proclamation named for Schneerson – Shawn Maher, a key White House official liaising with Congress, withdrew a small green felt box.
Maher had been legislative director for Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), who had chaired the House coinage subcommittee when Chabad lobbied for a Congressional Medal commemorating Schneerson.
Maher opened the box and, to gasps, produced his own version of the medal, saying he cherished it as one of the markers of his career.