President George H.W. Bush, a decorated World War II navy aviator who was shot down over the Pacific in 1944 and later came to serve as the 41st president of the United States, passed away on Nov. 30 at the age of 94. He was honored today by world leaders who gathered in Washington, D.C., for his state funeral, and will be laid to rest tomorrow in Houston.

Thirty years earlier to the month, Bush was elected president of the United States capturing 40 states on his way to the White House. The former congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, director of the CIA and vice president was sworn in on Jan. 20, 1989. During the next four years, he would steer the country through an era of momentous change in the world, grappling with many issues that were raised in correspondence with the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—in the midst of an era that the Rebbe characterized as one of “revealed wonders.”

Even as Bush assumed his presidency, the demise of the vast Communist empire did not seem to be a foregone conclusion. The same month that Bush was inaugurated, longtime Communist leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, predicted that the Berlin Wall—an ugly concrete gash splitting Berlin (and the world) in half—would stand for “a hundred more years.” A month later, a 20-year-old East German, Chris Gueffroy, was shot and killed by Communist East German border guards as he tried to illegally cross over the wall. Yet by November of that year the wall came crumbling down, and a wave of liberty swept over Eastern Europe. At the end of 1991, the Soviet Union—the puppet master itself—disintegrated. Bush’s calm and humble handling of the tumultuous era is today widely recognized.

The times were undoubtedly miraculous, and the elder Bush—whose son, George W. Bush, was elected 43rd president of the United States in 2000—saw it in these terms as well.

“We gather tonight at a dramatic and deeply promising time in our history and in the history of man on Earth,” Bush said at his State of the Union on Jan. 28, 1992. “For in the past 12 months, the world has known changes of almost biblical proportions. And even now, months after the failed coup that doomed a failed system, I’m not sure we’ve absorbed the full impact, the full import of what happened. But Communism died this year.

“Even as president, with the most fascinating possible vantage point, there were times when I was so busy managing progress and helping to lead change that I didn’t always show the joy that was in my heart. But the biggest thing that has happened in the world in my life, in our lives, is this: By the grace of God, America won the cold war.”

Later in the speech, he referenced “this age of miracles and wonders.”

Days later, Bush met with Boris Yeltsin, the first leader of post-Communist Russia, and the two heralded “the dawn of a new era.”

On the Feb. 1 Shabbat when the two world leaders met, the Rebbe spoke at his headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., highlighting the great historical importance of these meetings and the times the world was experiencing. The fall of the Soviet Union—a country which in its time had waged a war against Torah and Judaism, as well as the Creator and Ruler of the universe Himself—was nothing less than a “wondrous” event. The state that had imprisoned the Rebbe’s father-in-law—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, whose emissaries had worked throughout the period with self-sacrifice, and in secret to spread Torah and Judaism—was now free, a place where Judaism could be practiced “openly and publicly.”

The Rebbe also pointed out that Bush had, in his State of the Union, laid out detailed plans for arms reductions and cuts in defense spending, and the redirection of these funds for the good of the people of the United States and the world.

They were, the Rebbe said, a harbinger of the prophet’s words that the nations “Shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more.”

Points of Light

Letter from the White House on “Education Day, U.S.A.,” 1990
Letter from the White House on “Education Day, U.S.A.,” 1990

As had been done previously by presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, each year of his presidency Bush proclaimed the anniversary of the Rebbe’s birth, the 11th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, as Education Day, U.S.A. (Education Day turned 40 earlier this year.)

“The educational system must … pay more attention, indeed the main attention, to the building of character, with emphasis on moral and ethical values … ,” the Rebbe explained following Carter’s 1978 Education Day proclamation. “Education must put greater emphasis on the promotion of fundamental human rights and obligations, justice and morality, which are the basis of any human society … .”

In his yearly proclamations, Bush reiterated the Rebbe’s words, always focusing on the higher meaning of education. “Ethical values are the foundation for civilized society,” reads Bush’s 1989 proclamation. “A society that fails to recognize or adhere to them cannot endure … We owe a tremendous debt to Rabbi Schneerson and to all those who promote education that embraces moral and ethical values and emphasizes their importance.”

Two days later the Rebbe responded to Bush, writing: “Your kind tribute to the Lubavitch movement, which I am privileged to head, is a message of encouragement to me and to our members in the USA and abroad …

“Your personal and Presidential support to ‘Education Day, USA,’ reflects your awareness that education is the first and foremost vehicle of fostering the most basic and inexhaustible national resource. This, as mentioned earlier, is truly a source of encouragement to all who work for the betterment of life at home and for humankind at large.”

Bush’s 1992 words, in which he laid out his administration’s educational goals in a program called “America 2000,” went even further in stressing the innate connection between education and moral instruction, and its place at the heart of the American experiment.

“As the parent of private virtue and civil order, moral education is vital to the healthy development of our children and to the continued strength and well-being of our Nation,” reads the 1992 proclamation, Bush’s last. “When he took office, President Dwight Eisenhower urged Americans to ‘proclaim anew’ the faith on which the United States is founded. ‘It is our faith in the deathless dignity of man, governed by eternal moral and natural laws.’ This challenging yet ennobling view of humankind stands at the heart of America’s commitment to freedom, equality, and justice. As President Eisenhower noted, it defines our full view of life. We cannot, therefore, overestimate the importance of education that fosters ethical and moral values in keeping with what our Founders called the ‘laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.’ Moral education is the means by which we preserve the very foundation of this Nation’s great yet precious experiment in self-government.”

This was the vision of America that the Rebbe recognized and championed, recalling it time and again when speaking of the country’s unique place and role in history.

Then-Vice President George Bush signs the National Scroll of Honor for the Rebbe's 80th birthday in 1983, as Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, national director of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), and the vice president's wife, Barbara Bush, look on.
Then-Vice President George Bush signs the National Scroll of Honor for the Rebbe's 80th birthday in 1983, as Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, national director of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), and the vice president's wife, Barbara Bush, look on.

On July 4, 1991, Bush sent the Rebbe a letter congratulating him on the 50th anniversary of the Rebbe’s arrival in the United States from Nazi-occupied Europe. The Rebbe responded on Aug. 13, noting that he was accepting the president’s words as “a tribute to the Lubavitch Movement which I am privileged to head.” He went on to note that the fact that Chabad-Lubavitch had “grown and flourished in this country is a testimony to the conducive climate and responsive human nature that combine to ensure that all positive efforts are abundantly fruitful.

“By Divine Providence your kind letter was dated on the morrow of the anniversary of the Nation’s birthday. It is well to remember that the founders of this Nation considered Independence Day as ‘a day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to G‑d Al-mighty,’” the Rebbe wrote, quoting John Adams’ 1776 letter to his wife, Abigael. “By Divine Providence also my arrival in the United States in 1941 coincided with the declaration by Congress that year, making July 4th a legal public holiday.”

(Legislation making July 4 a legal holiday for all federal employees was introduced and passed in 1941.)

With the Jewish New Year of 5752 approaching, the Rebbe noted that it was a time “particularly propitious for firm resolutions to advance from strength to strength along the path of solemn acts of goodness, good in the eyes of G‑d and good to fellow man.”

Bush was predeceased this past April by his wife of 73 years, Barbara, and by a daughter, who passed away as a 3-year-old due to leukemia. His last conversation, it has been reported, was with his son George, who told him that he had been “a wonderful father.”

“I love you, too,” the elder Bush responded, those being his final words.

Bush is survived by five children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and two siblings.

The 1983 National Scroll of Honor was signed by President Ronald Reagan, then-Vice President George Bush, as well as members of the House of Representatives and Senate.
The 1983 National Scroll of Honor was signed by President Ronald Reagan, then-Vice President George Bush, as well as members of the House of Representatives and Senate.