Skip To Content

Chabad hosts Congress for bipartisan conference celebrating Judaism and the Lubavitcher Rebbe

On a rare occasion of bipartisanship in the nation’s capital, members of Congress – from both sides of the aisle – came together to address a group of Chabad rabbis and supporters, peppering their speeches with Hebrew and Yiddish terms and noting their faith and commitment to religious rights and the well-being of the Jewish community.

The event last week on Capitol Hill, hosted by Rabbi Levi Shemtov of American Friends of Lubavitch, marked the legacy of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson ahead of the 120th anniversary of his birth, which his followers celebrate on the 11th of Nissan, corresponding this year to April 12. One hundred and twenty is considered a life well lived in Judaism.

“As long as I am the Majority Leader of the United States Senate, I and Chabad, and yididshkeit in general, will be like this,” Senator Chuck Schumer said at the legislative breakfast, crossing his fingers in a gesture of protection.

Schumer was one of 25 senators and House members to participate in the day-long conference and address the more than 200 attendees, mostly Chabad emissaries from across the country and abroad. The genuine adoration for Judaism was a reflection of the relationships Rabbi Shemtov has managed to create in the past three decades and the close bond between the emissaries and their federal representatives.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) in DC with Republican Senator Roy Blunt at the Living Legacy conference on Capitol Hill on March 30, 2022

Rabbi Levi Shemtov of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) in D.C. with Republican Senator Roy Blunt at the Living Legacy conference on Capitol Hill on March 30, 2022 Image by Eliau Piha Studio

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland, noted that despite the fact that he and some of his colleagues in the room were not Jewish, “we are as one in our brothership and sistership with the Jewish community.” Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey described himself as an “unofficial shaliach to the goyim,” using the Yiddish terms for “emissary” and “non-Jews.” And Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the first Jewish woman to be elected to Congress from Florida, claimed with pride that she has the highest number of Chabad rabbis in her district than any other members of Congress.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) in DC with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz at the Living Legacy conference on Capitol Hill on March 30, 2022

Rabbi Levi Shemtov of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) in D.C. with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz at the Living Legacy conference on Capitol Hill on March 30, 2022 Image by Eliau Piha Studio

Shemtov attributed this kinship to the ability of himself and other Chabad emissaries to not allow themselves to get partisan in a divided political system. “Even as we are as forceful as possible in the presentation of our views in the public sphere, we are very diligent in ensuring that our messages are delivered without partisan components,” he said.

In 1995, John Lewis, the civil rights leader and Democratic congressman, stood on stage with his fellow Georgian, Republican Newt Gingrich bestowing the Congressional Gold Medal to Rabbi Schneerson, who passed away in 1994. “This award, this medal for the Rebbe brought Democrats and Republicans, liberals, conservatives, Northerners and Southerners, blacks, whites and Hispanic, it brought us all together,” Lewis noted in his remarks at the time.

Over the years, Chabad rabbis interacted regularly with public officials and advocated for educational issues, communal development and support for Israel. Shemtov described it as a “mutually beneficial relationship” because the lawmakers get to bring their message to a wider audience and the emissaries can deliver their message to them in a very direct and localized way.

Wednesday’s event was the first large gathering at the Russell Senate Office Building ahead of its reopening to the public on Monday. Shemtov said it served as a public demonstration of the ability of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement to “maintain some sense of togetherness in our dialogues” despite an overall deterioration in bipartisanship “with the potential to transcend partisanship” in D.C. “We hope to harness this, now that life is coming back from the COVID period, so that there can be a great exchange of ideas – action where there’s agreement and understanding where there might not be agreement – with people who don’t normally interact with each other to come together.”

The breakfast portion of the event was not clear of partisan jabs. Schumer pointed out to Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican of Texas who was in the room, that “every single Democrat supported” funding for the Iron Dome, while “not every Republican supported it.” Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky blocked an attempt to fast-track a House-passed bill that would give the Iron Dome an additional $1 billion in 2021. Cruz, who spoke before Schumer entered the room, recounted the House struggle to pass a resolution condemning antisemitism in 2019 following comments from several Democratic members. “When that happened, it broke my heart,” Cruz said.

Naturally, the war in Ukraine was one of the main issues of discussion throughout the day, which also included a lecture in the Library of Congress, a diplomatic luncheon and an evening banquet. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was born in Mykolaiv, near the southern Ukrainian cities of Mariupol and Kherson, which came under heavy bombardment by Russian forces. Rabbi Jonathan Markovitch, the chief rabbi of Kyiv, attended the conference and spoke at the lunch reception held at the St. Regis hotel. Shemtov’s son, Menachem, is married to Markovitch’s daughter, Racheli.

Natan Sharansky, the Soviet political prisoner who later became an Israeli politician and international voice for freedom, said in remarks at the gala that “before there was internet, Chabad already had a network all over the world that took care of every Jew.”

Former Senator Joe Lieberman speaks at the Living Legacy gala in Washington DC on March 30, 2022

Former Senator Joe Lieberman speaks at the Living Legacy gala hosted by American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) in Washington D.C. on March 30, 2022 Image by Eliau Piha Studio

Former Senator Joe Lieberman said that he does not know of another example in our time “of a leader whose followers after his passing, not only continue the leader’s work but expanded it as enormously as Chabad shluchim have.” Lieberman recalled a visit with the Rebbe before he was sworn in as a U.S. senator in 1989. “‘Don’t be discouraged if things don’t go your way,’” he quoted the Rebbe telling him. “‘Remember, you have a purpose, you have a destiny that comes from Torah and emunah.’”

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.