Still Falling for It

Rabbi Daniel Greer - Right of Response - Hamodia [NY] - January 13, 2015

I beg to differ with Yochonon Donn's op-ed piece,"Yes, I Was at the White House" (Dec 24).

Davening Minchah [the afternoon prayers] in the Red Room at the White House following the Chanukah party is nice, but substantively unimpressive. This is pure form, or "optics" as Obama likes to put it. The president's articulating the words "pidyon shevuyim" [the redemption of a captive] is mere pandering and clever political grandstanding. And yet we fall for it.

Had we his ear, and if Obama really cared about our concern for pidyon shevuyim, this would have been the perfect forum for him to, at long last, announce his pardoning of Jonathan Pollard after some 30 years of U.S. incarceration. After all, here we have a chief executive who unhesitatingly "uses his pen" to issue executive orders when he so desires, even when his directives actually, or arguably, contravene the U.S. Constitution. How difficult would it have been for Obama to sign Pollard's release, or even that of Mordechai Rubashkin, at that White House Chanukah reception! But why bother, since we Jews fall so easily for trappings of importance and willingly delude ourselves about the president's friendship just by having "free reign in the East Wing."

Indeed, it would have behooved one or more of the attendees at that party to politely point out to the president after his trenchant remarks about pidyon shevuyim that American Jews are most troubled by our own two shevuyim [captives] who sit in American jails. While we are pleased by Alan Gross's release from Cuba, we care deeply and ask the president to free Pollard and/or Rubashkin. That would have been a meaningful way to test whether we have "Obama's ear." Unfortunately, the well-known passuk [verse] from the Navi Yeshayahu [the Prophet Isaiah] comes to mind: "meishiv chachamim achor..." [which suggests that the "wisdom" of the leaders has been "turned backwards" and is patently foolish.]

And, we will leave aside the quite overt ongoing hostility this president has shown to Israel in its struggles for survival, and to its prime minister during the past six years - hardly the treatment one would expect from a friendly head of state. So much for Obama's attentiveness and "ear" to Jewish concerns!

No, folks - to employ one of Obama's favorite expressions - there is no indication that this president would have lifted a finger to do more than did FDR in helping Jews during the Holocaust. The only difference is that Obama is willing to engage in "smoke and mirrors" and Madison Avenue tactics - all post-FDR political developments.

It is about time that we Orthodox Jews learn to accurately and maturely assess political realities and forego being naively farglutzt, bedazzled, by "show and tell." Regrettably, Mr. Donn's reaction to the White House reception demonstrates that we have yet very far to go as a community.

The writer, Rabbi Daniel Greer, is Menahel [Principal] of Yeshiva of New Haven.

Please note: Clarifying notes and translations in the text above which appear in [square brackets] were inserted by J4JP.

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Yes, I Was at the White House

By Yochonon Donn - Hamodia [NY] - December 23, 2014

"You're going to see the president?"

The words, spoken in a slow trill as if I had just discovered the cure, were uttered by a colleague of mine, no fan of Barack Obama but someone who grew up in the shadow of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

I wasn't so keen about taking a day off - on Chanukah, at that - for a visit to Washington. But the way my friend reacted to news of my invitation convinced me otherwise.

Yes, I went to see the president, a man whose belief system and politics are contrary to everything I consider prudent. But he is the president, holder of the office which symbolizes America as much as the flag and the anthem do. And he lives in the White House, the most singular symbol of power the world will have.

The trip, my first ever to the White House, was an experience for the ages. Just walking in the footsteps of the founding fathers, standing in the famed Blue Room where John Adams received foreign diplomats, squatting at the fireplace where Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his legendary fireside chats, seeing the china used by Jefferson as he hosted who-knows-whom, was for the history buff in me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Riding the train to DC, I sat next to a husky fellow, whose demeanor, clothes and confidence bespoke wealth and influence. Indeed, his business card identified him as an investment researcher.

In between his tales of trips to the Far East, his brother's close relationship with Henry Kissinger and his Jewish friend was a telling story of an African-American friend of his whom he once brought to the White House. The gentleman was overawed.

"My great-grandparents were slaves," he said. "And to think that I'm now standing in the White House!"

It was that sentiment shared over and over again at Obama's annual Chanukah party.

I stood near the president as he attempted to announce that he had just done the "mitzvah" of "pidyom shevuyim" with the release of Alan Gross from Cuban incarceration. But the heroes of Holocaust Hatzalah would have given years of their lives to get a former president's ear and whisper into it the value of pidyon shevuyim in any language.

The reception was the stately one you would expect from the people's mansion. Waiters milled around with glasses of beverages, offering to refill any glass that clinked close to empty. Scrumptious buffets of glatt kosher food abounded as the White House threw open its doors to its Jewish citizens. It was easy to forget that this was the iconic State Dining Room where this was taking place. Or that the foyer to enter it was the fabled East Room. Or that guests wanting to talk could retire to the celebrated Green Room, where a huge painting of John Adams stared down at the intruders.

"Minchah [afternoon prayers ]in the Red Room at 4:40," someone tells me.

Minchah in the Red Room, where at least one president was sworn into office? What's next, a Daf Yomi shiur [a Talmud lesson] in the Oval Office?

The hundreds of years of history and layers of tradition I witnessed during my visit were truly mind-blowing. It once again emphasizes the medinah shel chessed [Country of Loving Kindness] that America has become since 1945.

The White House welcome for George Washington's "Sons of Abraham" serves as a moment to ponder how far we have come since those bleak days when Europe's Kingdom of Darkness threw its shadow across the Atlantic.

We will never know the answer to "what if?"

However, as Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein, Hamodia's publisher noted, some 400 Rabbis stood on those steps 70 years ago seeking to tell the president of the horrific murders going on in Europe - and were denied entry.

Mrs. Lichtenstein, who attended the White House reception, has spent many years bearing witness to the history of the Holocaust, including the U.S.'s failure to save Europe's Jews, as head of Project Witness. To be given three hours of free rein in the East Wing, she says, is symbolic of how far we have come as a community.

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