“This is a story about kiddush Hashem, not about any individual,” says the rabbi who stood at the center of one of the more fascinating episodes in recent history. The rabbi is Tzvi Teitelbaum, founder of MesorahDC, an outreach organization serving the Georgetown University campus and the greater Washington area.
The story began a few years back when George W. Bush was president and a regular attendee dropped out of Rabbi Teitelbaum’s Torah class in neighboring Silver Spring, Maryland. Rabbi Teitelbaum called to check in: “Is everything all right?”
“Yes, Rabbi, I’m doing great. I got a job in the White House as assistant to Chief of Staff Andrew Card. It’s just that I have to put in fourteen- to sixteen-hour days, and there is no way I can get away to study.”
“Well, I think it is wonderful that you have this important position, but that does not free you of the obligation to learn Torah.”
“Trust me, Rabbi, I would love to attend. It is just not doable for me to get over there. Of course, if you would be willing to come to the White House, I could probably set something up, maybe even get some other Jews on staff involved.”
“I would be happy to go there if you could arrange the clearance and it would be wonderful if you could get other people involved. My concern is that it be consistent. I would rather have five people there once a week than fifty people once a month.”
And so it was born. A good old-fashioned shiur, a very recognizable phenomenon in Jewish history: a group of Jews coming together once a week to shine some light into their minds, to kindle some warmth in their hearts, to inspire some passion in their souls. The only thing different about this shiur was its august venue: the house of the president of the United States of America.
Most Needed, Most Enjoyed
The amazing part of this, beyond the image of the rabbi being admitted by the Secret Service to teach Judaism, is the dedication required from the students. To block out an hour from their grueling grind, even if it was from 7:30 to 8:30 in the evening, took quite a bit of doing. When the session ended, there were still hours left in their working day. The one hour of the shiur stood alone, inviolable, and the business of the nation took a seat while these aides took a stand.
Rabbi Teitelbaum remembers one teaching which struck a powerful chord in this audience. It was the idea expressed by Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner in Pachad Yitzchak Shavuot explaining the phrase in the evening prayer that “the words of Torah are our life.” He said that basics like bread are the most needed but the least enjoyed while luxuries are the most enjoyed but the least needed. Only life itself manages simultaneously to be the most needed and the most enjoyed; so, too, the words of Torah. These men proved this teaching by finding that class so necessary yet so enjoyable.
Traveling in Style
Once when the President was being honored at a dinner commemorating 350 years of Jewish life in America, someone thought it would be a good photo-op if he stopped at a synagogue along the way. Naturally Rabbi Teitelbaum was chosen to give him the tour of the shul. The president was expected to be in and out in three minutes, but he lingered inside for a half hour speaking with the rabbi. President Bush was clearly awed by the sanctity of the place and wanted to prolong the experience.
The only thing different about this shiur was its august venue: the house of the president of the United States of America.
He asked about the Torah scrolls and Rabbi Teitelbaum took the opportunity to bring up a heartfelt message. “The first commandment for a Jewish king is to write a personal scroll and carry it with him always. In the same way any great leader should keep the teachings of the Bible before his eyes at all times.” The president was palpably moved by these words.
Afterward, the president asked the rabbi if he was planning to attend his speech at the dinner. He politely answered in the affirmative, although he knew it would make him late for a class. “So hop in,” said the president, and Rabbi Teitelbaum found himself being transported in the presidential limousine. When he finally made it to his previously scheduled class he told the group the story by way of apology—but they did not believe he meant it literally. He had to be kidding! The next day, they read about it in the paper and sheepishly apologized for their initial incredulity.
The study halls of the Diaspora will be transported to Israel in Messianic times, our Sages teach. Could it be that down the street from the Holy Temple will stand . . . the White House?
Yaakov D. Homnick is an author of many books and articles on Jewish subjects in Hebrew and English, and recently released a CD of original Jewish music. He writes a weekly column as Jay D. Homnick in the American Spectator on religion, politics and culture.