In a city gripped by deep political polarization, Washington experienced a sudden outburst of bipartisanship last week, if perhaps only for a moment.
In the nation’s capital, a host of political figures, foreign diplomats and government representatives marked the 120th anniversary of the birth of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. A giant in American Jewish life—and the world over—he was born in what today is Nikolayev (Mykolaiv), Ukraine, in 1902. He died on April 5, 1994.
Affectionately known as “The Rebbe,” Chabad-Lubavitch leaders marked the milestone on March 30, gathering to celebrate his “Living Legacy,” which includes the establishment of 4,500 operating Chabad centers in 100 countries and all 50 states.
In the ornate Kennedy Senate Caucus Room on Capitol Hill, Republican and Democratic leaders, who are often at bitter odds with each other, lined up to honor the Rebbe.
The expressions of nonpartisan respect for the New York-based rabbi in the nation’s capital should not come as a complete surprise. In 1994, the same year that the Rebbe passed away, Congress awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal.
Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich and Democrat Rep. John Lewis, both of Georgia, were among many ranking House Members who lobbied for the award.
More than 100 Chabad rabbis traveled from every continent to attend the event, including one of the chief rabbis of Ukraine, Rabbi Jonathan Benjamin Markovitch of Kyiv.
A lunch also showcased the movement’s broad diplomatic support. Twenty-five diplomats attended, ranging from Turkey, Morocco, Japan, Germany, Canada, India, Qatar, Thailand, Korea, Argentina, Uruguay, Hungary to Ethiopia, Jamaica and Kazakhstan.
The luncheon featured David Malpass, president of the World Bank; Anne Neuberger, White House deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technology; and Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, who serves as the Biden administration’s special adviser on Holocaust issues.
The day-long conference was organized by Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of Americans Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), who also serves as rabbi to the White House.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) were among the first leading Congress members to praise the Rebbe and Chabad.
“I’ve always loved Chabad,” said Schumer. “As many of you know, I was one of the lead sponsors in 1994 as a congressman awarding the great Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory, the Congressional Gold Medal. Rabbi Schneerson exemplified the highest level of scholarship and teaching, and was an amazing and wonderful influence.”
“Let us reflect on the legacy of the Rebbe, your leader,” Cruz told the rabbis. Turning to Shemtov, he said, “but I also want to thank you for your courage and persistence during these challenging times. We are grateful, rabbi, for your leadership.”
They were joined by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md).
Booker recalled that he was on his first trip to Israel when he heard that the Rebbe had passed away.
“My first trip to Israel was in 1994. And it was the day [I arrived] that the Rebbe died. So here I am in Israel for the first time ever, and it was with a heavy heart.”
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) said that as a local congressman, he has visited the Ohel—Rebbe’s burial site in Queens, N.Y. “I remember visiting the final resting place of the Rebbe. I remember the honor of visiting his amazing, everlasting site; it reminds us of our purpose here in Washington, D.C.”
Hoyer said, “I am an American friend of Lubavitch. I am an admirer of the work that you do, of the principles that you set, the principles you’ve lived up to.”
Wasserman Schultz said “the Rebbe, to his credit, launched the Chabad movement, and to his credit, there are centers around the world, and that’s very impressive. No matter where you are in the world as a Jew … you will always have faith.”
Also joining in praise were former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, and Alaska Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan. Sullivan. Other House Members joined in along with the Senators.
As part of the official commemoration, the Chabad rabbis also listened to two formal academic lectures held at the Library of Congress.
One was delivered by Rabbi Marcus Solomon, a justice of the Supreme Court in Western Australia. The second was by Naftali Loewenthal, a noted British author and a British Chabad leader, as well as a professor at the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London.
Richard Pollock is a retired national reporter. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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