A Dec. 9 White House meeting between 14 rabbis and President Bush may have been closed-door, but it left participants openly moved by the leader of the free world's commitment to religious faith, support for Israel and the global spreading of democratic values.
Bush spent an unusually long time an hour and fifteen minutes with the rabbis before hosting a menorah-lighting ceremony followed by a Chanukah celebration in the Red Room, attended by about 400 people.
Some leaders of Jewish organizations were miffed that the White House chose to meet with a hand-picked group of rabbis and predominantly Orthodox ones at that rather than appointed heads of leading Jewish groups, as is usually the custom.
"The predominance of Orthodox members in the meeting indicated the president's identification with Jews who practice their religion," said Rabbi E.B. Freedman of Detroit, who worked on getting out Michigan's Jewish vote for Bush in November's election. He and his wife attended the White House Chanukah party and were deeply impressed with President Bush's obvious efforts to accommodate his Orthodox guests.
"The president is a religious man who cherishes religious beliefs and values in others as well. Never before have Jews felt so at home in the White House," Rabbi Freedman said. That feeling was palpable when a spontaneous minyan (religious service) for afternoon prayers formed after the meeting's conclusion, and again, when about thirty people later assembled for Evening Prayers in the Red Room.
"There is a strong sense that in the Bush White House, prayer is looked upon very warmly," Rabbi Freedman commented. He said that when shaking the president's hand, he told Bush that he recites Psalm 120 for him daily. "That is the best gift you could give us," President and Mrs. Bush responded.
At the meeting, the president laid out his plan for a safe Middle East, stressing the need for the Palestinians to build democratic institutions and implementing reforms such as freedom of speech, before achieving an independent state. He also pledged that the United States would support Israel when it takes military action to defend its citizens.
Bush spoke of his commitment to supporting faith-based initiatives, thanks to which government aid is permitted to be channeled to parents of children attending private schools, including yeshiva and day schools.
"Government should not discriminate against faith," he said, stressing his belief that Americans are a moral people with a core of faith.
Among those present were Rabbi Naftoli Neuberger, President, Ner Yisrael Rabbinical College in Baltimore, Rabbi Zalman Gifter of Cleveland, Rabbi Reuven Drucker of the Agudath Israel of Highland Park, NJ, and best-selling author and global lecturer Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, who gave an invocation at the GOP convention.
One of those present remarked to the president on the enormous contrast between the meeting that day and a disturbing scenario from the recent past.
"During the Holocaust, hundreds of rabbis, devastated by news of the Nazi's systematic slaughter of European Jewry, sought an audience with President Roosevelt," one of the rabbis said. "Even at a time of terrible crisis, they could not gain access to the White House. What a difference it makes today to have a president who is truly concerned about injustice, truly committed to halting evil."
Rebbetzin Jungreis recounted her impressions of the president's graciousness toward his guests.
"Power almost always goes together with arrogance," she said. "But here was the man who occupies the most powerful office in the world sitting down with people who carry relatively little weight in terms of political leverage, and you couldn't help but perceive his humility, kindness and humanity."
Seated to the president's immediate left, Rebbetzin Jungreis took the liberty of questioning Bush when he told the rabbis that the Palestinians must first demonstrate their commitment to democracy before earning statehood.
"Forgive me, Mr. President," she said. I survived the Holocaust. If you had been at the helm of the free world, things would have been different for the Jews, but you were not at the helm then. Now you are. Thank G-d for that."
"I remember Oslo," she continued. "The high hopes we had for peace! But at the end of the day, we saw how the Arabs are committed to the annihilation of Israel. What will prevent a Palestinian state from trying to carry out that goal?"
The president answered: "Oslo was a mistake because everything was contingent on Arafat's good will, and Arafat had no interest in peace. The situation is different now. If all else fails, the Israeli army has options…and the United States will back Israel's right to defend itself."
President Bush also discussed the global rise of anti-Semitism, citing his upcoming trip to Europe and his intention of bringing up with European leaders the problem of anti-Semitism's resurgence and their obligation to combat it within their borders.
"Governments must take a stand not to tolerate anti-Semitism," he said. That is the first and most important step. That is why, although anti-Semitism exists in some places in America, it cannot take hold, he said. "The government will not tolerate it."
Many Jews are grateful to Bush for standing strongly behind Israel in his first term. His staunch support in the face of world opposition of Israel's right to defend itself against Palestinian terrorism won him a higher percentage of the Jewish vote in the presidential election.
Participants were taken aback at the degree of care that went into accommodating Orthodox standards of kosher laws and religious sensitivities. Particularly moving was President Bush's selection of a tall, magnificently crafted menorah used at the lighting ceremony. The menorah was on loan from the Boca Raton Synagogue. The shul's leader, Rabbi Kenneth Brander participated in the lighting. The menorah had been dedicated in memory of Noam Apter, killed in a terrorist attack in December 2002, shortly after Chanukah.
Noam, a hesder student, was one of four students killed in the West Bank city of Otniel while working in the yeshiva kitchen, serving the Sabbath meal to some 100 students in the adjacent dining room.
Two terrorists from the Chevron area infiltrated Otniel, cutting the fence. They wore army uniforms, carried M-16 rifles, ammunition and hand grenades. About 100 yeshiva students were gathered in the ground-floor dining hall, waiting for the meal to begin. The terrorists opened fire from the outside as one burst into the kitchen via a service entrance, shooting dead four unarmed yeshiva students who were working in the kitchen.
Hit by the bullets and mortally wounded, Noam used his last strength to run to the door connecting the kitchen and the dining room. He closed it, locked it, and threw the key into a corner. He then collapsed and died, lying against the door. His heroic act saved the lives of scores of students who were in the terrorists' direct line of fire.
Whether President Bush was aware of the background of the menorah is not clear. But a number of those present at the candle-lighting ceremony had been told of it. The poignancy of the occasion was immeasurably heightened by the memory of Noam's dying act of courage that recalled the self-sacrifice of the ancient Maccabees.
The president used the candle-lighting ceremony to call attention to the miracles performed by G-d. "The Talmud teaches that the menorah lights should perform no function other than to proclaim the miracle of a just and loving G-d," Bush said, noting that every generation has to make sacrifices for freedom.
The children of a Jewish chaplain serving in Iraq their tzitzis (ritual fringes) hanging out and the oldest wearing a black hat lit the menorah and sang the blessings and the traditional Maoz Tzur.
A larger Chanukah celebration followed the candle-lighting. It featured a religious all-male singing group, Kol Zimra another gesture of sensitivity to Orthodox participants, who were present but now definitely in the minority.
"The feeling I had walking out," said Rabbi Naftoli Neuberger," was that throughout history, Jews have had to struggle against hostile governments to keep the Torah. Persecutions, edicts and Jew-hatred made it so difficult. But here in America under the benevolent administration of President Bush, there is no excuse not to be ehrlicheYidden [religious Jews] on the highest and purest level possible. Here we don't just have 'religious rights' we have religious responsibility."