Joe Biden poured him a drink and he gave Jared Kushner an aliyah. Rabbi Levi Shemtov is optimistic about D.C.’s transition.
WASHINGTON (JTA) — Some of Rabbi Levi Shemtov’s most prominent congregants are likely to leave his synagogue soon, but the Washington, D.C. rabbi isn’t sweating it.
After all, Shemtov has been through decades of presidential transitions as Chabad’s main man in Washington, and even though this one is unfolding unusually, he’s confident he can continue to offer a spiritual home for people on both sides of the political aisle.
“I am a rabbi in the political arena,” Shemtov told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I’m not a politician in the rabbinical arena. There’s a difference.”
Shemtov directs American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), an outreach and fundraising body and synagogue for the global Hasidic outreach movement. Growing up, he watched Chabad negotiate Washington under the guidance of his father, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, who launched the tradition of lighting a menorah in front of the White House. That was during the Carter administration, in 1979.
Levi Shemtov began running Chabad’s D.C. operations in 1992, the year that one one-term Republican president (George H.W. Bush) lost to a Democratic challenger (Bill Clinton). Twenty-eight years later, another Republican president has lost to a Democrat after his first term — but this time, members of the outgoing president’s family belong to Shemtov’s congregation.
Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner live a seven-minute walk from the shul, which doubles as Shemtov’s home, and attend services there regularly. Shemtov’s intimate and substantive relationship with the outgoing first family doesn’t stop there: He also had a small role in the recent treaties between Israel and Arab states.
For years, he has played matchmaker between Jewish organizational leaders and some Arab nations, whose embassies neighbor his headquarters near Washington’s Dupont Circle. Some of the seeds of the breakthrough Abraham Accords, signed in September between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, were in his impromptu blessing of the King of Bahrain at a 2008 event, which opened the door to further Arab-Jewish cooperation.
Now, not only is Joe Biden promising a 180 on just about every policy President Donald Trump introduced in his four years in office, but Trump has also broken virtually every norm aimed at facilitating a transition. The outgoing president is also rushing through executive orders that could cripple Biden’s first months in office.
Shemtov is not fazed by the machinations of a Trump administration determined to sabotage liberal agendas on its way out the door, or by the calls from liberals for retribution on Trump and those adjacent to him.
He stresses that he’s no politico. He has lobbied for specific Chabad agenda items — such as prison reform or the Congressional Gold Medal for the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson— but generally leaves policy matters to others. And while he is a fixture at political conventions, he says he has declined invitations to deliver opening convocations, because he would then be unable to do it at the opposing party’s event.
“When we have an event, which features a prominent official from one side, we will either have one from the other side at the same time, or oscillate at different events between the two,” Shemtov said. “Sometimes I’ll be asked to participate in something [that] can appear partisan, and I will only do so if there’s agreement that I can do the same with the other side.”
Shemtov said he anticipates a warm relationship with the incoming White House. He recalls Biden quoting Schneerson, off the cuff, and the president-elect once poured him a drink. Years ago, his father would ride the train with the then-Delaware senator, whose nickname is “Amtrak Joe.”
Shemtov is ubiquitous in town no matter which party is in power, especially (in pre-pandemic times) around Hanukkah, when he supervises the koshering of the White House parties and lights of the menorah in front of the White House. He is almost always accompanied by a top Jewish administration official and his father as the crane rises towards the massive candelabra.
Alongside those roles, he makes appearances at the other parties that proliferate around the capital. He is in his element regaling a small crowd with Jewish tales of the capital. A jovial guy in a beard doing the rounds in December would be his copyright, but, well, it’s been copyrighted.
“He glides seamlessly between Democratic and Republican Washington,” said William Daroff, the CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “He was as much a fixture in the Obama White House as he was in the Trump White House.”
Shemtov also is, well, a Chabad rabbi and invested in Jewish outreach, a fertile field in a city that is a magnet for young, single ambitious Jews seeking careers in politics and policy. And like other Chabad rabbis, he wants his friends to learn more Torah. Except in his case, his friends are the kind of political lifers who are well known among the well-known — the names that excite attention among Washington insiders for their formidable backroom politicking, but who barely resonate among the general public.
Shemtov says he gives a select few shiurim, one-on-one lessons in Jewish readings. Among his current students he names Mark Penn, the Clinton-era pollster who has in recent years raised eyebrows by becoming an outspoken Trump supporter, and Bill Knapp, one of the Ks in SKDK, the powerhouse consultancy that is helping to put together the incoming Biden administration.
What do these folks want to know? Shemtov did not get into the particulars of what each student is learning, but described generally what he tells his study partners.
“When we study Pirkei Avot,” the Ethics of the Fathers, a rabbinic text of moral adages, “we get to touch on subjects like political power, and how fleeting it can sometimes be and how one must be wary in the political world of the true nature of allies. And we have seen over time, bitter enemies become friends and vice versa. And, you know, to me every time I can watch people from different persuasions appreciate the perspective of the other I see a sanctified moment in the political arena.”
Knapp said in an interview that he has been taking lessons with Shemtov for several years intensively although the families have known one another for decades. “There’s a certain complexity to his shiurs which I enjoy,” he said.
“The lessons you learn about humility, the lessons you learn about right and wrong and the lessons you learn about listening to others, about respecting others, the Torah is a guide to living,” Knapp said. “The lessons are meaningful without being trite.”
The Trump-Kushners have remained steady congregants of his, notable considering the news recently that parents furious in part at their pandemic behaviors drove them out of a local Jewish school. Shemtov put an early stop to such concerns at his synagogue.
“Some people had concerns,” he said. “I told the shul one thing. Two lines. I said, number one, everyone is welcome to come to this shul, except people who say other people are not welcome. Second thing is it’s not my synagogue or anyone else’s. It’s God’s synagogue, I’m privileged enough to run it. And anyone who wants to come here and pray is welcome.”
He credits the couple for keeping it real, at least at his shul.
“There’s a famous story where an elderly woman walked into shul and nobody stood up. Every seat was taken, people were standing-room-only. And as soon as Ivanka saw her she stood up and gave the woman her seat and wouldn’t take anyone else’s seat that was offered to her. She stood at the side until the service was over. There were no cameras. No media reports. Just like 150 Jewish women looking on and saying that’s a real mensch.”
He said Kushner, a Levite, would defer to other Levites if they were present for the second Torah reading in a service, which traditionally goes to Levites. Once, when Kushner was called up to the Torah, Shemtov witnessed a rare instance of bipartisan comity.
“I even had this moment where Jared had a special Aliyah of Levi,” he said. “Standing next to him was someone who actually wrote a scathing article against him. And the whole idea of the shul was, Baruch haShem, that at least for one moment any differences have been transcended by the sanctity of the synagogue.”
He sees Biden as someone who has affection for the Jews, as well. The incoming president, he said, surprised him once by recalling a saying of the Lubavitcher Rebbe extemporaneously while speaking at a Chabad conference. Shemtov realized how steeped Biden was likely to have been in Lubavitcher lore as a result of those Amtrak journeys with his father.
“He was giving his prepared remarks, but then went off on his own for a good half hour,” Shemtov said. “And in the middle of it he turns to my father. ‘Rabbi Shemtov, did you not teach me that the Rebbe said that what you do one day is not enough for the next day and every living thing must grow?’ This was not in his prepared remarks. This must have been taught to him over many, many years.”
Then there was the time in 2011, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress, that Biden poured Shemtov drinks. It was a significant moment for Shemtov, whose grandfathers were once imprisoned by the leaders of another country, the Soviet Union.
“I see Joe Biden walking up the bar,” he said. “So I got out of the way and said, ‘Please, Mr. Vice President.’ He says, ‘No, rabbi, what are you having?’ I said, ‘After you.’ He said, ‘No no no no no, I’m Irish, and you’re now in my house, so I’ll pour you a drink. Tell me what you want.’ So a vice president pouring you a drink at the bar is a pretty interesting experience for this young American Jew.”
He has no less trouble getting along with the Arab ambassadors who work near him. He says he finds commonality in the two ancient faiths of Judaism and Islam, saying his interlocutors are often “fascinated” by his practice.
Shemtov’s ability to get along with others hasn’t always extended to his own colleagues. A turf war between him and a rabbi at George Washington University ended up in court. It was settled. And a different dispute between him and a Chabad rabbi in Maryland resulted in a rabbinical court concluding that Shemtov is the official leader of all Chabad activities in D.C.
But the only thing giving Shemtov any anxiety right now — and the only time he skated close to political commentary while speaking with JTA — is the fate of the Abraham Accords, which Kushner brokered.
The accords advanced the idea that the U.S. does not need to first achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace to normalize relations with other Arab countries. Biden is seen as likely to make Israeli-Palestinian talks more of a priority. Shemtov sees the recent treaties as more evidence for his philosophy — that people of different backgrounds and ideologies can still get along.
“You know, peace and process don’t always get along with each other. And what we have right now is a significant chunk of the Arab and Muslim population, recognizing more and more how the Jewish people at our core mean no ill toward anyone. And we can live in peace rather easily. I’ve watched with pain as Israel was pinched for continued concessions which didn’t quite bring the promised results. I think the best result we can have is when people work together.”