President Bush Hosts Jewish Representatives

Two Rabbis Ask Bush to Free Pollard

Hamodia Staff - Hamodia News Front Page - October 3, 2003

In an historic event, President George W. Bush invited Orthodox rabbis and leaders of other Jewish denominations to meet with him in the White House on Monday, September 29, right after Rosh Hashana. Jewish representatives have traditionally been invited to the White House during Chanuka.

Among the fifteen participants were eight Orthodox rabbis, including Rabbi Elson, a Marine Chaplain; Rabbi Ilan Feldman, Rav, Beth Jacob Congregation in Atlanta, Georgia; Rabbi Yosef Groner, Rav, Congregation Ohr HaTorah in Charlotte, N.C.; Rabbi Moshe Hauer, Baltimore; Rabbi Ari Israel, executive director of Hillel at the University of Maryland; Rabbi Kassin, spiritual leader of the Syrian community in Brooklyn; Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, Rav, Congregation Bnei Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey; and Rabbi Yaakov Rubenstein, Rav, Young Israel of Scarsdale, New York.

Prior to the private meeting, White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters during his regular news briefing that the president was looking forward to his meeting with congregational rabbis later in the afternoon. "This is the Jewish high holy days and it is time for prayer and reflection in the Jewish community. Today's meeting is part of the president's ongoing commitment to reaching out to faith-based leaders who make our nation stronger, so the president looks forward to that meeting," said McCellan.

The hour-long meeting actually took place in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building due to the Do-Not-Call legislation that was being signed at the time in the White House. Many topics were discussed with the president, most notably the topic of a presidential pardon for Jonathan Pollard, which was raised by Rabbi Feldman and then echoed by Rabbi Pruzansky some twenty minutes later, speaking on behalf of the Jewish community.

In a telephone discussion prior to the meeting between Rabbi Feldman and Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, which has stood at the forefront of the struggle to secure Pollard's freedom, the rabbis discussed the upcoming encounter with the president, and the wisdom of using this unusual opportunity to plead for a presidential pardon for Jonathan Pollard. (Jonathan Pollard, the former Navy intelligence officer serving a life sentence for spying for Israel, is serving the eighteenth year of a life sentence, the longest sentence ever meted out to an American convicted of spying for an ally.)

Rabbi Lerner, whose personal and communal activism on behalf of Pollard's release is legendary, encouraged Rabbi Feldman to make the issue of pidyon shvuyim his priority. Rabbi Feldman also discussed the issue with his congregants, and they voted - almost unanimously - for the subject of Pollard's release as the most urgent matter they could think of to broach with the president of the United States.

During a question and answer session, Rabbi Feldman addressed the president and expressed the concern of the Jewish community for the plight of Jonathan Pollard. He pointed out that Pollard is serving the longest and harshest sentence of any person in the United States convicted of a similar offense. Rabbi Feldman stressed that for Jews the world over this time of year is one of introspection and contrition, a time that we all pray for Heavenly mercy and forgiveness. He asked that the President show similar consideration to the Jewish community.

"I am begging for your mercy [for Jonathan Pollard] during these Days of Awe when we beg G-d for mercy," implored Rabbi Feldman.

In a telephone conversation on Tuesday with Hamodia, Rabbi Feldman shared his impressions of the historic meeting with the president. "The president was very focused, very intent. I was impressed with his genuine warmth towards us."

When questioned how the president reacted to his plea for mercy for Pollard, Rabbi Feldman responded that the president was very attentive, and said, "thank you" when he concluded.

"Do you feel that your plea was effective? How do you feel your plea impressed the president?"

"I think the fact that Jonathan's name was mentioned, that's progress. The president heard there are Jews who are concerned about him. I know there are some who claim it was a waste of time, but my feeling is that it was worth it," said Rabbi Feldman.

"Do you feel you made any progress towards securing Pollard's release?"

"It's impossible for me to really know, but my feeling is that it registered at some level for him," Rabbi Feldman said.

Rabbi Feldman was touched with the president's open discussion about prayer, his passionate support for Israel's battle against terrorism, his frank disclosure of a personal problem in the past, and his interest in the faith-based initiatives.

Rabbi Feldman also related how the president warmed the hearts of his audience by reaffirming his commitment to help Israel overcome terrorism. He described himself as a man of peace, not of war, but insisted that terrorism had to be dealt with the right way. In referring to terrorists, the president told the participants that "down in Crawford, Texas, we have a saying, 'Therapy ain't going to work with these guys.'"

Rabbi Feldman said that Bush was cognizant of the fact that there was internal disagreement within the Israeli government, referring to "sharp elbows in the Israeli cabinet" implying the cabinet ministers who are often in sharp disagreement, even with their prime minister.

Still, Bush's friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Sharon was evident, and he referred to him by his first name. He didn't deny that he sometimes disagreed with him, but, he said, "we disagree in private, because we're friends."

Justice for Jonathan Pollard, an organization dedicated to the struggle for Pollard's release, has learned that Rabbi Feldman's comments are even more remarkable in light of the fact that some of the other Jewish participants expressed their strong opposition to bringing up the request for Pollard's release in a pre-meeting conference call. The reasoning for this opposition was that since the president was unlikely to do anything for Pollard in any case, an important window of opportunity for the American Jewish community would be wasted on a doomed-from-the-start request. Rabbi Feldman convinced some of his fellow participants otherwise, by asking them how they would defend such a position and explain what could be more important than the fate of an imprisoned Jew.

Still, as Rabbi Lerner pointed out, Rabbi Feldman displayed remarkable courage in raising this issue, sensing that there may be many Jews within the broader community who feel that he wasted an unusual opportunity on a request that had little or no chance of being granted.

It is noteworthy that Rabbi Pruzansky was not a part of this exchange. Nevertheless, he acted on his own personal initiative, and reinforced the urgency of the issue by repeating the request for clemency.

When Rabbi Pruzansky was recognized to speak, he echoed Rabbi Feldman's message. In a telephone conversation with Hamodia, Rabbi Pruzansky related that the sensitive issue of Pollard's release was brought up in a respectful manner, expressing regret for the crime that was committed, while stressing the Jewish community's concern for Pollard, who is enduring an unduly harsh sentence. The seasonal theme of compassion was invoked to awake the president's mercy. The essence of the plea was that since the president is a just and decent man, perhaps he should give a fresh look to the case. Rabbi Pruzansky expressed his fervent wish that the president release Pollard in time to spend the remainder of the holidays at home in Israel. The president appeared to be listening carefully, but made no commitment.

At the meeting, President Bush told the Jewish delegation that a "simple formula" exists for judging the new Palestinian leadership, the JTA reported. Bush said that the United States would deal with new Palestinian leaders if they dismantle terrorist groups and fight terrorism. Until then, he said, "everything's on hold," according to Rabbi Pruzanski and others who attended the meeting. Bush said he supported Israel's security fence, as long as its route does not sabotage future peace efforts.

Rabbi Pruzansky said the president became emotional twice during the meeting: once while discussing his recent trip to Auschwitz, and then again when he acknowledged that people pray for him.

According to Rabbi Pruzansky, the meeting with the president was extremely pleasant. The president came through as a very attentive and personable man, humble and spiritual, and possessing strong leadership qualities. The meeting was very spontaneous, with the president engaging in discussion on a wide variety of issues with intelligence and sincerity. The president exuded very strong core values, and very specific direction in every sphere, and the determination to pursue his course and not to deviate from it.

It was Rabbi Pruzansky's feeling that the president met specifically with congregational leaders because of his deep respect for religion, and because of his conviction that religion is the most effective way to help people improve their lives. As a matter of fact, the president shared with the participants his personal experience whereby faith played an important role in helping him overcome his drinking problem as a young man, and that religion continues to be central to his life.

Rabbi Pruzansky also speculated that the president was looking for a greater insight into the grassroots Jewish community and correctly assumed that their congregational leaders were more in touch with their constituents as opposed to the leadership of many so-called mainstream Jewish organizations who have lost touch with their constituents. In general, it appears that the president seems to find closer kinship with people who are authentically religious. He also shared with them his deepest appreciation for those that pray for his success and asserted that it was an awesome privilege for him to be the daily recipient of so many prayers and good wishes.

According to a press release issued by Hillel, Rabbi Israel apprised the president of anti-Semitic incidents at the Rutgers University Hillel and other campuses in recent months. The president said that his visit to the site of the Auschwitz death camp strengthened his resolve to eliminate anti-Semitism everywhere. Asked to offer a message to Jewish students, Mr. Bush emphasized that all students should join together to promote freedom and liberty so that all people can enjoy the fruits of democracy. Rabbi Israel was moved by the opportunity to speak informally with the president prior to the event.

Predictably, the president dealt extensively with Israel and the peace process. He recalled seeing the beauty of the Old City of Jerusalem in the morning during a 1998 visit to Israel. He also spoke about touring the West Bank from the air with Ariel Sharon as his guide. The president referred to Prime Minister Sharon as "a friend" but stated that sometimes friends need to be told that they are wrong. He reiterated his commitment to Israel's security and commented that he supports Israel's new fence as along as it is only for self-defense.

The president also restated his declared position that he does not consider Yasser Arafat a partner in the peace process. He expressed his hope that the new Palestinian prime minister succeeds in his role.

The president expressed his hopes that down the road there will be a partner with whom to negotiate peace, even if there isn't at this point. He stated that no country should tolerate attacks on its citizens and that Israel has every right to use whatever means at its disposal to protect its citizens, but shouldn't do anything that would preclude negotiations in the future.

The president's respect for the effectiveness of religion in improving the quality of life underlies his recent faith-based initiatives. He firmly believes that if you want to help a person overcome his problems, you need to give him a strong set of values. He knows it works. Bush wants religious organizations to take over the social services that the government or secular organizations now offer because he believe they can do as good a job - or better - so they should have equal access to the funds.

While the support of the Orthodox community for the faith-based initiatives is natural, it was surprising that Conservative leader Rabbi Marc Gelman, whose denomination has not voiced support of faith-based initiatives, stated that the president should not be misled by what the secular organizations are saying in opposition to his faith-based initiatives, because most Jews are supportive of them, because they know the positive effect that religion can have on people's lives.

The president averred that despite the setbacks in Iraq, he is determined to stay the course. Bush claimed that already now Iraq is a far better place than it was several months ago, and that Iraqis are finally starting to get their lives in order. Furthermore, he declared that the war on terror is the most important issue we are currently confronting, and that he was not going to back down from it.

In a telephone conversation with Rabbi Pesach Lerner, he urged Hamodia to remind its readers that besides davening for his release (Yehonatan ben Malka), the most important thing they can do for Pollard is to keep up the pressure on politicians at every level. He was well aware of the fact that many people feel that it's a useless exercise, but he still insisted that the pressure does make a difference. He pointed to the recent hearing that Pollard got as proof that one can never give up, and one can never know which effort will finally result in Pollard's long overdue release.

Rabbi Lerner quoted a well-known story about a kindergarten child challenging his teacher that they could bring Mashiach. The child asked, "If the tzaddikim of previous generations were unsuccessful in their attempts to bring Mashiach, how can we imagine that we will be able to do so?" The reply, a very applicable analogy, was a comparison to dropping coins into a pushke and wondering when it will fill up. Finally, one penny fills it up and it overflows. Similarly, all our tefillos for Mashiach are added to those of the tzaddikim and other members of Klal Yisroel from today and from previous generations, and who knows which tefilla, which z'chus will finally bring the geula sheleima we are all yearning for?