It was early May 2010, and I sat at my desk in my office at home staring at my computer screen. I had been a Conservative rabbi for 20 years, but we all have our moment, or moments, when we evaluate life and ponder our purpose, when we ask ourselves those big questions: What do I really want to do? What is important to me? What will I accomplish in my future? While we are contemplating these deep thoughts, we may even begin to think that we are figuring it out. At those moments, it is so difficult to remember that the story has already been written . . .
The Land of Israel was on my mind. My wife, Nancy, and I had recently returned from there, and I cried on the plane. I’m too embarrassed to give the details, but whenever I leave, I cry.
I decided that I wanted to do something for Israel. I would make small video snippets of Jews talking about Israel. I would ask, “Any comments on Israel?” and they would say how much they like the spirituality, or the falafel, or the archeology, or the beaches. I would put the short pro-Israel comments on my website, and presto, everyone would watch. All the ills and ill-wills would be readjusted.
At the time I was using my website, RabbiLIVE.com, to broadcast prayer services for American Jewish soldiers in Afghanistan, Iraq, and on aircraft carriers . . . and also for some very lazy Jews in Boca Raton, Florida. I figured this would be the best place to post my Israel falafel videos. I would push that magic “viral video” button on my keyboard and help Israel’s public relations in the world.
Meanwhile, my teenage son, Adam Natan, was up in his room, also busy. (We named him Adam Natan because he was the first male on my wife’s side in 90 years.) He has a website of his own for teenagers to learn about and discuss Jewish topics. He is quite a remarkable young man—he went to Washington by himself and streamed the entire AIPAC conference live on his website.
That May, Adam called up the White House and requested to attend the President’s Chanukah celebration the following December. (He somehow knows how to contact the right people.) They asked him if he was confused. “Are you sure you mean the Chanukah celebration, and not the upcoming Jewish heritage celebration?”
“Oh, the upcoming Jewish heritage celebration,” he answered. (It is a proud parental moment when our children learn the power of a white lie.) The White House media office was kind enough to provide press credentials for Adam, his friend Daniel Landau and me.
I took time out from my busy schedule of contemplating my life, and drove down with the two teenagers to celebrate Jewish Heritage Month with the president. Maybe this would be a good place to find a group of Jews to ask my “Any comments on Israel?” question and put a spotlight on my precious homeland.
On May 27, 2010, I stood in the White House briefing room with my cell, calling, very specifically, anyone and everyone I knew, bragging, “You’ll never guess where I am!” Suddenly, I saw former president Bill Clinton walk by. Everyone ran to the door as he passed. He greeted us swiftly as he moved along, and I turned to the person next to me and said, “That’s Bill Clinton!” The man said, “I know. I’m Joe Biden.”
We attended President Obama’s first press conference in 10 months, in the East Room of the White House. The topic was the oil leak in the Gulf. The three of us had brilliant questions prepared to ask if called upon, but alas, no such luck. The big room was packed with seasoned reporters from all over the world, and only a handful were given the honor to ask a question. Helen Thomas, dean of the White House Press Corps, was one of them.
After the president’s briefing, we had an hour before the Jewish heritage celebration. We thought we would leave the grounds of the White House for a little walk. As we headed for the gate, I noticed Helen Thomas walking toward us. Our paths were about to cross. I gave my son and his friend a quick rundown: She’s one of the most famous reporters in the world, and had been covering the White House since the times of Eisenhower and Kennedy. She was the only member of the press to have a designated seat of her own—front row, center, in the White House briefing room.
She was a journalist for 60 years, and I was a journalist for 60 seconds; I figured it was time we met. So we stopped her and exchanged pleasantries. Although my cameras were in the White House, I had my small Flip video camera on me, and I started filming. She looked directly into the lens and gave some rather gracious advice about journalism: “You’ll always keep people informed and you’ll always keep learning.”
I was waiting until later in the day to shoot my Israel question at the guests of the Jewish celebration, but something made me fire one round a little early. “Any comments on Israel?”
Hashgachah pratit, divine providence. The ultimate Creator of this story, and all stories, placed in my camera the video snippet that would aid Israel and change my life. “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” she said.
If I was in a back alley in New York and a skinhead said that to me, we would probably rumble. But we were at the White House, she was 89 years old, and, if you’ve seen my photo, I’m the skinhead. The whole thing was very confusing. So I decided to be a journalist, and I asked her, “Where should they go?”
“Where’s home?” I asked.
“Poland and Germany.”
Back home to Poland and Germany. I wish I could go back to the shtetlach and shtieblach of Poland. My grandparents’ town of Drobnin, where on a Friday evening the smell of challah no doubt permeated the town, and candles twinkled in the window of every home. I wish I could go back. But not one shtetl, not one candle, not one Jew is there. The anti-Semites erased them.
We went back to New York with the video. I called a writer from The Jewish Week and told him what happened, and he said two words: “No story.” I had suffered anti-Semitism on the White House lawn, and now I experienced secular Jewish apathy in New York.
I wanted to post the video immediately on my website. But even if you are a billionaire CEO with private jets and thousands of employees, you need to hire a 15-year-old to figure out how to put something on a website. (Those who can afford it can hire a 12-year-old.) I needed my son to post the video, and unfortunately he was tied up with final exams and driver’s ed. An entire week went by, and the video remained in my camera.
Hashgachah pratit, divine providence. Something happened that week in the Middle East that brought Israel into the spotlight. On May 31, 2010, Israeli soldiers boarded a flotilla of boats that were bent on defying the security blockade of the Gaza Strip. The “peace activists” on one of the boats beat the Israelis with metal rods and attacked them with knives. Several of the activists were shot during the confrontation.
The whole world was against Israel. Helen Thomas stood in the White House, inches in front of the president, before the entire international press corps, and said, “It was a deliberate massacre by Israel against peace activists on the high seas.”
That night my son had some time. We posted the video at around 2 a.m. Friday morning. We forwarded it to some people, including Jewish blogger Jeff Dunetz, publisher of the blog “Yid With Lid.” My son left for the weekend on a teenage Shabbaton.
After Shabbat I turned on the computer to see if anyone had looked at the video. There were over 700,000 views. By Sunday it went viral, into the millions.
At a time when the events of the flotilla fueled the foggy views of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic people, my video cleared the air. Helen Thomas was forced to resign in shame, and her co-author and agents dropped her. She was banished from the White House; her name was removed from the front-row seat and from various awards throughout the country.
Every media outlet in the world converged on me, the good, the bad and the ugly. I received thousands of threatening hate e‑mails as well. Law enforcement and private agencies got involved. Everyone wanted to know about the guy behind the camera; my inbox was flooded with the entire international press corps asking for an interview.
Sitting at the computer in my son’s room with the soccer ball wallpaper and the little desk, I was overwhelmed. I thought that this would be a good time for some hashgachah pratit. Then the phone rang. It was Ari Fleischer, former president Bush’s White House press secretary. He advised me that I should have a definitive message. It was important that I know what message I wanted to deliver to the world.
My son came home from school, and I told him that Ari Fleischer had called. My son said, “I know; I told him to call you.” (Who is this kid?)
My son said, “You can speak to anyone in the world; who do you want me to call for advice to find out what our message is?” I thought for a moment and said one name. Sure enough, within minutes, my son handed me the phone to speak with Elie Wiesel.
As per Ari’s counsel, I asked, “Professor Wiesel, what is my message for the world?” He said that he had read in the newspaper that I attend services at Chabad each morning, and he suggested that I should find out what the Rebbe would have wanted me to say.
I couldn’t figure out what I was more confused and amazed about: that Elie Wiesel was advising me to find out what the deceased Lubavitcher Rebbe would have me say, or that I was now in a surreal world where Elie Wiesel was reading about which minyan I attend over his morning coffee.
I called my local Chabad rabbi, Chaim Grossbaum, and told him that Elie Wiesel had advised me to find out what the Rebbe would want me to say. “Okay, let’s find out,” he said without any hesitation.
With Rabbis Shemtov and Grossbaum.
We called Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, a renowned individual who knew the Rebbe, has great knowledge of the Rebbe’s teachings, and also has terrific insight into world politics and media. We asked him what he thought the Rebbe’s message would be in this situation.
“If you have a friend and you don’t see him for a little while, he is still your friend. But if you don’t see him for 50 years, you can’t be sure if he is still your friend,” Rabbi Shemtov said. “But if your child goes away for a little while, he is still your child; and if your child goes away for months or even years, he is still your child. And if, G‑d forbid, you don’t see your child for 50 years, he is still your child.
“We are not the friends of Israel. We are the children of Israel. We were away for a few hundred years in Egypt, or a thousand years in Persia, or Spain, or North America . . . we were away for a few years in Auschwitz. But we are still the Children of Israel.
“Israel and the Children of Israel are one. It doesn’t matter where or when you are born and live, or what language you speak; we are always the Children of Israel. We and Israel exist because of each other; it is G‑d-given. The Jew walking on the street in New York, whether or not he even knows or cares about Israel, is alive because of Israel, and Israel exists because of him.”
Two days later, I was on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” with Howard Kurtz. I can’t remember what he asked me, but I know the answer was that the Children of Israel and the Land of Israel are one, and that is what Helen Thomas and those who want to delegitimize Israel are denying.
Two months later I drove across the United States with my son, interviewing everyone from Jackie Mason to the Grand Dragon of the KKK for a documentary film about anti-Semitism and hatred. (The film later premiered at the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance.)
Upon returning home, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at Yale University’s inaugural symposium on global anti-Semitism. Before I spoke, the chairman of the symposium, Professor Charles Asher Small, paused to explain to the audience of professors from all over the world why I was the keynote speaker.
He explained that he never watches television, but one day he was visiting his parents, and they happened to have on CNN’s Reliable Sources. He heard me say that “the Children of Israel and the Land of Israel are one. They only exist because of each other; it is G‑d-given.” He said those words caused him to ask me to speak. He said those words needed to be heard at Yale University by all the professors assembled.
Hashgachah pratit. Helen Thomas said, “Go home,” and I did. After being a Conservative rabbi for over 20 years, I traveled home to my roots. And so did my family. Last year my son Adam studied at Chabad’s Mayanot Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and this year he is studying at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, New Jersey. On Sukkot he built sukkahs in Guatemala with the Merkos Shlichus program. On Pesach he delivered matzahs and conducted a Seder for Jews deep inside Cuba.
My daughter Shira is a student in Crown Heights at the Machon Chana Women’s Institute for Jewish Studies, and, G‑d willing, she will be studying at a Chabad seminary in Montreal next year. An accomplished dancer, she now teaches dance to the daughters of shluchim over the Internet. My wife and I are very proud of our children.
I not only went home; I went to 100 homes. I have traveled to and spoken at more than 100 Chabad Houses throughout the world. From the Chabad Houses of Sydney and Melbourne to those in Manchester and Liverpool, from Boca to Boston to Bellaire, from Fairfield to Flamingo to the Friendship Circle of Livingston, New Jersey, I have been inspired and I have, thank G‑d, inspired others as well.
Each time I tell my story, I offer my conclusions about how to fight anti-Semitism. I tell my audiences that the way to fight anti-Jewish is by doing Jewish. Do Torah. Do Mitzvot. Do Shabbat. Do kosher. I know this is what the Rebbe would have wanted me to say.
Hashgachah pratit has taken me from the White House to over 100 Chabad Houses. There are 4,900 more to visit; each one brings me closer to home.