Florida Gov. Charlie Crist granted an exclusive interview to Chabad.org just before the conclusion of the Passover holiday. Sitting down in his office with Rabbi Shneur Zalman Oirechman, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of the Panhandle in Tallahassee, and Menachem Cohen, Crist spoke about his warm relations with the Jewish community and shared his concern for the Chabad House of Miami Beach, found torched last week in an apparent arson.

Q: As you know, the destruction of the Chabad House in Miami Beach, directed by Rabbi Zev and Chani Katz, is the second case of a synagogue in the Miami area to be struck by fire in six months. How should the authorities respond to this latest tragedy?

A: "I think that it is terrible that it occurred at all, [happening] on Passover. Some of the [Torah] scrolls were torn, [and] it looks like it was intentional. I know from what I am told that there is currently an investigation going on to try to determine [who are] the perpetrators and how this happened."

As the state's attorney general, you were behind a hate-crimes law. Should it be applied here?

"This kind of crime, if it is proven to be that, would fall into the category of what we call a hate crime, because it happened against a particular group for a particular reason, in this case religious based. I am a strong supporter of enforcing hate crimes, in order to deter that kind of criminal activity from happening again. I am very glad we have hate-crime laws in Florida, because they protect the Jewish religion, African Americans, and any group of people.

"I am hopeful that once the investigation is concluded, and the facts are fully determined, that those laws would bring with them severe penalties."

Florida has one of the highest concentrations of Jews in the world. Tell us about your relationship with the Jewish community.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist

"I cherish it a great deal, as I do my relationship with Rabbi Oirechman. He is, as you would say, a mentch. He is a man of a very kind heart, great good will, and I am honored to have him as my friend.

"I think that it is important for all of us in Florida, in America and the world to understand the contributions of the Jewish community. It has been significant [here] and personally significant to me.

"I cherish what the Jewish people have done for Florida, have done for America, and have done for Israel. There is a strong bond and affinity between the state of Israel and the state of Florida."

You visited Israel almost one year ago. Why did you choose Israel as your first foreign destination as governor? What impressed you by your visit there?

"I wanted my first trade mission to be to Israel because of the importance the state of Israel has to so many of my fellow Floridians. As you indicated accurately, there is a significant Jewish population in Florida, upwards of 750,000 by the numbers I've seen. That is important to me and that means a lot to me.

"I say many of my closest friends happen to be of the Jewish faith, and care a great deal about the state of Israel.

"It was important to me personally to have the opportunity as a new governor to express in a very appropriate way my affection for the state of Israel [and] my concern for the Jewish people in Florida by making Israel my first trade mission as the 44th governor of Florida."

Has it brought any results in making Florida and Israel economically better?

"I think it has. Let me explain: I had a chance to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. I also met with Defense Minister Tzipi Livni and many other government officials, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu as well.

"Every time I have a chance to visit Israel – this was my second visit – it just gives me a greater awareness, a deeper understanding of issues of concern. One of them that came [up] was the divestment issue as it relates to countries like Iran and the Sudan. Because of those kinds of interchanges and experiences, this divestment issue became very important. State Sen. Ted Deutch sponsored a bill, and I was able to sign it when I came back from the mission.

"Because of the horrible things that Iran, the sponsor of state terrorism in the world, is doing, we as Floridians, through our state board of administration and the billions of dollars it invests, can no longer invest in any company that invests in Iran. [Likewise with] the Sudan, because of what's happening there as well."

You spoke earlier about your relationship with the Jewish community. There are more than 130 Chabad-Lubavitch centers throughout Florida. How do you view their work, and their contribution to the state?

Rabbi Shneur Zalman Oirechman, right, explains the meaning of the mezuzah to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman Oirechman, right, explains the meaning of the mezuzah to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.

"I am very impressed. Any of us who are called to serve, as you are obviously, should be motivated to do good work for those less fortunate. Chabad does an amazing job in reaching out to communities throughout Florida, in trying to help others do good works, in making Florida a better place to live for all our people. For that, I am very grateful. Thank you."

You presided over the first-ever Chanukah lighting at the governor's mansion. How did it make you feel to celebrate that Jewish holiday?

"I feel that it is important to recognize the beliefs of others, appreciate them and respect them, and honor them in a way that manifests them visibly. By having the celebration at the governor's mansion, I thought it would elevate the awareness and appreciation of the Jewish people."

What message do you have for the Jewish community?

"Just to continue the good work that is already happening. I think a celebration such as Passover reminds us how important it is to stay in touch with G‑d, to appreciate his good work, to understand that many are sacrificed [and have] gone before us. Their freedom is precious, whether from Pharaoh, or whatever. G‑d's kindness passing over certain doors reminds us every year that G‑d's great power is a great protection."

From an interview with the Hebrew Kfar Chabad Magazine and Chabad.org.