South African Jewry marked the 15th anniversary of the passing of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, with a glimpse into the Rebbe’s work on behalf of education, a focus that extended into the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.

In events in Cape Town and Johannesburg, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, chairman of the executive committee of Agudas Chassidei Chabad, the umbrella organization of Chabad-Lubavitch, relayed parts of his missions in the U.S. capital dating back to the early 1970s.

At Investec Bank’s rooftop lecture hall overlooking Cape Town Harbour, Michael Bagraim – national president of the South African Jewish Board of Directors – introduced the Philadelphia-based Shemtov, who is also informally referred to as “the Rebbe’s man in Washington,” by first expressing the community’s shared sorrow at the recent shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and asserting the need to heighten Jews’ security around the world.

In a talk lasting close to an hour, Shemtov weaved together anecdotes and experiences from close to four decades shuttling between Philadelphia, where he directs Lubavitch House, and the Beltway. He told of a Chanukah menorah lighting attended by President Jimmy Carter, the only time the president left the White House during the Iran hostage crisis, and an urgent meeting President George W. Bush held with Jewish leaders immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Chabad-Lubavitch of Cape Town and the region’s Chabad Houses sponsored the event. Ian Neilson, the executive deputy mayor of Cape Town, attended the talk. It was the first Jewish event he attended in an official capacity since being elected.

“The Rebbe’s man in Washington?” said Shemtov after being introduced. “What does the Rebbe have to do with Washington? What did the man of the Rebbe do in Washington?”

The rabbi explained the Rebbe’s long-term influence and in-depth involvement in the policies of the world’s superpower. Shemtov said that his own presence in Washington was primarily to serve the interests of education.

As an example, he shared the Rebbe’s advocacy for creating a separate executive department devoted exclusively to education. Until 1979, the U.S. Departments of Health, Education and Welfare were combined into one Cabinet-level department, but the Rebbe wrote to then-Vice President Walter F. Mondale that “education, in general, should not be limited to the acquisition of knowledge and preparation for a career, or in common parlance, ‘to make a better living!’

“We must think in terms of a ‘better life,’ ” continued the Rebbe, “not only for the individual, but also for society as a whole. The educational system must, therefore, pay more attention, indeed, the main attention, to the building of character, with emphasis on moral and ethical values.”

The Rebbe similarly dispatched letters from his office in Brooklyn, N.Y., to other presidential advisors, including Stuart E. Eizenstat, assistant to the president on domestic affairs and policy, encouraging the establishment of what would become the U.S. Department of Education. At the time, Shemtov served to encourage members of Congress to endorse the Department of Education Organization Act.

Carter signed the bill on Oct. 17, 1979.

“I owe you fellows my job,” Shemtov said a secretary of education once announced. “If not for you, there would not be a department, and I would not have been its secretary.”

Rabbi Abraham Shemtov serves as chairman of the executive committee of Agudas Chassidei Chabad, the umbrella organization of Chabad-Lubavitch.
Rabbi Abraham Shemtov serves as chairman of the executive committee of Agudas Chassidei Chabad, the umbrella organization of Chabad-Lubavitch.

The Rebbe’s Message

Using the Rebbe’s emphasis on education for all mankind as a prime example, Shemtov said that the Jewish people’s mission is to inform the world what G‑d expected of it, and enable individuals of all persuasions to better themselves and the world around them.

Of prime importance, he said, was the ability of even a single Jew to effect change.

“The Rebbe’s view was not only of Judaism, but the yid,” said the rabbi, using the Yiddish word for Jew. As much as the Rebbe was concerned with Judaism, he “was worried maybe more about the Jew.”

“The Rebbe sent [emissaries] to all parts of the world, because the Rebbe saw Jews that are ready to respond, recognizing the validity of Jews throughout the world who have long been forgotten,” said Shemtov. “The Rebbe’s message is that every Jew, no matter where he or she is, has enormous power, [but] only if activated. Every good deed has enormous influence and impact on the good in the world.”

Whether on Capitol Hill or in neighborhoods around Cape Town, said Shemtov, local Jews are partnering with Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries to further the Rebbe’s call to better the world.

“We’ve been chosen for a specific mission,” he said, “and in that sense, every one of us is deputized to pass on the message of Torah to the rest of the world.”