The White House’s budding relationship with the Orthodox Jewish community was on display last week at three public events that some participants said signaled who’s in and who’s out of favor with the administration as President Bush heads for a second term.
An intimate December 9 meeting between the president and 15 communal leaders featured 10 Orthodox rabbis, one Orthodox rebbetzin, four Reform rabbis and not one Conservative Jew. The 500-person White House Hanukkah party, held later that night, was choc-a-bloc with Orthodox Jews in beards, hats and yarmulkes, according to participants. And the family of a Lubavitch chaplain stationed in Iraq had the honor of lighting the Hanukkah menorah at a White House candle-lighting ceremony.
Both supporters and detractors of the president said the events showed that Bush was rewarding the religiously traditional elements of the community that supported his re-election and sending a message to the more liberal segments that did not. According to network exit polls, about 75% of American Jews voted for John Kerry — but a majority of the Orthodox, who comprise only 8% of Jews nationally, backed Bush. The liberal branches of Judaism, including the Conservative and Reform movements, together represent 79% of synagogue-affiliated Jews, compared with 21% who belong to Orthodox congregations, according to the most recent National Jewish Population Study.
Communal insiders said that in addition to shining a light on the White House’s increasing ties to Orthodox leaders, the guest lists at last week’s various events reflected an attempt by the Bush administration to bypass the long-established communal agencies that have historically represented the Jewish community with federal officials. The national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, said the administration’s conduct showed that the White House wants to set its own terms in its relations with the community, rather than rely on umbrella groups like the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“This White House has been struggling with who and what the Jewish community is and has tried to free itself from structural dictates,” Foxman said. “There was a time when the umbrella groups would dictate who goes [to functions]. It didn’t always serve the administration’s needs. Since the Republican administration has ascertained that it has more significant support in the traditional Orthodox community, they want to encourage it.”
According to Foxman, the pre-eminent role vis-à-vis the White House of the Conference of Presidents “hasn’t been eliminated.” The group, however, “has lost their monopoly and lost their ability to control access. The White House decides who and how. Some in the umbrella groups are unhappy that they’ve lost the ability to call the shots… [but] more in the community have access than they did in the past when it was controlled by one funnel.”
“On the whole,” Foxman concluded, “it’s good.”
The chairman of the Conference of Presidents, James Tisch, countered that it was “preposterous” to suggest that the umbrella group of 52 national Jewish organizations ever had a monopoly on controlling access to the White House. “It seems to me that the story is the enormous attention the president is paying to the Jewish community, notwithstanding the fact that he got under 25% of the Jewish vote,” Tisch said. “To hear people complaining now that they weren’t invited is extraordinary.”
But some of those left off the list were complaining.
The head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, expressed displeasure that no Conservative rabbis attended the 15-person rabbis’ meeting with the president. (Several Conservative rabbis were spotted at the larger Hanukkah party.)
“He’s got a right to invite who he wants to invite,” Epstein said of the president. “ I don’t know that people weren’t invited. All I know is that nobody attended.” Epstein said he wasn’t consulted.
“It is clear I’ve had much less access than I did in any previous administration since I got this position in 1986. I’d love to have a relationship, but if they don’t think a relationship is important, that’s okay….I would hope he’s listening to other people who may not have supported him on one issue or for president. The president is the president of everyone.”
One organizational official, speaking on condition of anonymity, complained that “this White House is so damn political about things that never were political.”
“It’s such a crying shame,” the official said. “All these events are looked at as a way to punish people who aren’t on their side…. They think they do better with a stick.”
Some communal officials said that in many ways the administration’s approach toward the Jewish community reflected the president’s preference for rewarding loyalty and keeping a tight lid on information. One likened the president’s lack of meetings with the representatives of the mainstream Jewish organizations to his parsimonious approach to holding press conferences. “They like total control,” the official said. “You can control more with fewer people.”
Even supporters of the president acknowledged that the White House has provided fewer opportunities to interact with the president.
“This president doesn’t have as many events,” said the chairman of the American Jewish Congress, Jack Rosen, who was once a major fund raiser for Bill Clinton, but has established a good relationship with Bush. “People tend to become bean counters.”
Rosen said that he has seen no evidence suggesting “that [the president has] favored one group or another.”
“It didn’t seem to me that anybody was excluded,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the Lubavitch Washington representative. At least 10 of the Hasidic sect’s emissaries from around the country were invited to the White House party.
“There was obviously a larger Orthodox presence,” Shemtov said. “But that would be understandable given [the administration’s] working relationship with the Orthodox community.”
During the recent campaign, Republican operatives said they used Lubavitch synagogues, called Chabad houses, as engines of Republican turnout, but Shemtov bristled at that notion.
“We were not a turnout machine specifically for Bush. We were a turnout machine, period,” he said. “We didn’t tell anyone who to vote for,” he said, adding, “Invitations were extended to both camps to visit us. If one camp responds more than the other, that’s their prerogative.”
Despite the Orthodox-heavy guest lists, several officials with liberal-leaning communal groups said that relations with the White House had taken a turn for the better with the hiring of its latest liaison to the Jewish community, Noam Neusner. The White House and Neusner did not respond to requests for comment.
The president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who attended the Hanukkah party, rejected the notion that the guest lists to such White House events contained any significant message. Yoffie, a domestic and foreign policy liberal, rejected such talk as “Washington gossip.”
On Israel and the Middle East, Yoffie said, “We certainly feel we have access to the people who have the president’s ear.” Still, he acknowledged, “on domestic issues, we have differences that are very real…. We have much less access.”
Yoffie and Orthodox supporters of the president praised the White House’s decision to hold a Hanukkah party for the Jewish community, saying that it represented an advance over the generic holiday celebrations hosted by the previous administration.
A former liaison to the Jewish community in the Clinton White House, Jay Footlik, defended its approach. “We didn’t look at the community as something you reach out to one time a year,” he said. “I don’t know if there was a need to do a specific meeting around the holiday. There was access and opportunity to interact with the community on a variety of issues year round.”
In terms of its adherences to Orthodox Judaism’s stringent religious requirements, the party did well on two scores but struck out on another. An all-male a cappella group that could make its voices mimic various instruments sounded “fantastic,” in the view of Shemtov (some steams of Orthodoxy do not allow men to listen to female singers on the grounds that their voices are sexually provocative). Several participants mentioned with joy the evening prayer service held in the White House Red Room.
Some attendees were upset, however, about what they said were misleading signs on a table with kosher food that seemed to indicate all the food on table was kosher when only some was. Shemtov said he was “in touch with officials at the White House to make it better next time.”
Many who were interviewed for this story praised the patience, grace and good humor of the president, who spent two-and-a-half hours greeting revelers at the party and answered some pointed questions from Rex Perlmeter, one of the Reform rabbis at the earlier meeting.
Perlmeter, rabbi of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, challenged Bush on his administration’s approach to church-state separation. In response, according to the rabbi, Bush stated that “democratic society and a free press would prevent religious intolerance from becoming a dominant force in society.”
“I found the man to be respectful, affable and well expressed,” Perlmeter said. “He did try to listen.”