Successive American administrations recognized the extraordinary role of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, in providing moral (and religious) direction for Jews and non-Jews worldwide, and sought his sage counsel on issues of global and local import. The Rebbe, in turn, would often emphasize the unique role the United States plays in the world—in general, and particularly the extraordinary influence of the office of the American president.

On the occasion of the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States, we share a brief sampling of some exchanges between the Rebbe and Presidents Carter and Reagan.

[Some of the personal exchanges, both oral (via emissary intermediaries) and written, have yet to be uncovered and we ask you, dear readers, to please submit to us any additional information you may have.]

President Jimmy Carter
President Jimmy Carter

Shortly after President Jimmy Carter's inauguration in 1977 he honored the Rebbe by declaring 1977 to be the "Year of Education." At the conclusion of that year the United States of America celebrated the first Education Day U.S.A. on the Rebbe's birthday, according to the date on the Jewish calendar.

A joint resolution, signed by the Congress and the President, stated:

…the Congress recognizes a need for the Nation to set aside on the calendar a day devoted to the importance of education to the lives of its citizens and to the general well-being of the Nation; and the Lubavitch Movement, which conducts educational activities at more than sixty centers in twenty-eight States as well as around the world, is especially committed to the advancement of education and has proposed the establishment of an "Education Day, U.S.A."; and world Jewry marked in 1977 the seventy-fifth birthday of the revered and renowned Jewish leader, the head of the worldwide Lubavitch Movement., Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

The President then requested in a separate proclamation that:

…all Americans observe that day in such a matter as reflects their commitment to education and their recognition of its importance to the welfare of this Nation…

After the Rebbe suffered a massive heart attack in 1977 on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret, the President sent a telegram to the Rebbe:

I was sorry to learn of your illness. I hope that you will be strengthened knowing that the thoughts and prayers of your many followers and admirers, both here and abroad, are with you.

The Rebbe responded:

I thank you, dear Mr. President, for your kind telegram in connection with my recent illness. Your warm expression of concern for my health is deeply appreciated.

…With prayerful wishes for your continued good health and for success in carrying out in the fullest measure the enormous responsibilities which Divine Providence has bestowed on you…

President Jimmy Carter at the Lubavitch Menorah Lighting in front of the White House together with Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, national director of American Friends of Lubavitch and the Rebbe's ambassador to the White House.
President Jimmy Carter at the Lubavitch Menorah Lighting in front of the White House together with Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, national director of American Friends of Lubavitch and the Rebbe's ambassador to the White House.

During a chasidic gathering on April 18, 1978, the same day proclaimed as Education Day USA, the Rebbe delivered an address about its significance. Some freely translated excerpts:

…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.” And we must think in terms of a “better living” not only for the individual, but also for the 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. (Need one be reminded of what happened in our lifetime in a country that ranked among the foremost in science, technology, philosophy, etc.?)

Education must put greater emphasis on the promotion of fundamental human rights and obligations of justice and morality, which are the basis of any human society, if it is to be truly human and not turn into a jungle. The United States of America has a long-standing policy of foreign aid to developing countries, through direct grants and through U.N. agencies. Economic aid to foreign countries includes also cultural aid for the promotion and support of cultural programs, etc.

It is generally recognized, at any rate among the free and democratic nations, that each nation is a member of the Family of nations, and all must live together in "the world" which is like one organism. When any part of an organism ails, it affects the whole body; strengthening any part of the body strengthens the whole.

The record of this Nation's foreign aid is unexcelled in the annals of history, which is as it should be for a Nation so generously blessed by the Al-mighty. One would wish, however, for more affirmative action in the area of cultural, particularly educational, programs.

Economic aid given to a developing country is meant to be used most efficiently and productively. While the conditions attached to such aid must necessarily be limited and circumspect, there are certain conditions which are considered prerequisites. To cite a recent example, President Carter has taken a courageous stand on Human Rights, dismissing the notion that it is an “internal matter,” and he has made it also a condition of Foreign Aid. It is to the President's credit that he has not only raised this issue, but has succeeded in arousing the world's “interest” in behalf of this cause. “Unofficially,” however, there is a great deal more that the U.S. government can do to make foreign aid even more productive.

This Nation, with a healthy intuition, indeed, conviction, recognized that its economic system must not be based on crass materialism. Nothing expresses this idea more eloquently and forcefully than the motto on the American Dollar—"In G‑d We Trust."

In giving out billions of dollars in foreign aid, many discreet ways can be found to have the beneficiaries take a look and ponder on this inscription, with a view to encouraging them to recognize the importance of Trust in G‑d, of appropriate education, with particular emphasis on moral values and genera, humanitarian principles, as mentioned above. Carrying this train of thought further brings us also to the question of military aid.

Ideally, education should lead to a world state where "Nation shall not lift up sword against Nation, neither shall they train for war" (Isaiah 2:4). Until such an ideal state is reached, there will be a need—in the Nation's own interest—to provide friendly, democratic nations with military aid for self defense, but not to provide military aid to nations that will use it to start war It would surely be in the best interests of those countries themselves, as well as of the United States and the world at large, if, instead, goodwill and benevolence towards them were expressed in terms of economic and cultural aid, to help them raise a new generation free from hatred and violence and bent on channeling their youthful energies and ambitions towards all that is good, good for them and for their countries, and the common good of humanity both materially and spiritually.

In light of all that has been said above, it is most gratifying indeed that President Carter, Vice-President Mondale, and the eminent members of the United States Congress. G‑d bless each and ail of them, have thoughtfully and graciously initiated and associated themselves with the Proclamation of "Education Day, U.S.A." It augurs well for the vital cause of education in the United States. It will, we hope and pray, also have a beneficial impact on education in all countries which look up to the United States of America for leadership and inspiration in all vital matters that transcend national boundaries, and conduce to a better human society and a better world.

The Rebbe's call for an emphasis on education was published in major newspapers by American Friends of Lubavitch. On September 18, 1978, President Carter wrote to the Rebbe after receiving a copy of the ad:

I read with great interest the full page ad [...] portions of your response to the resolution passed by Congress designating April 18, "Education Day - U.S.A." I admire the thoughts which you expressed—and am grateful for your support and prayers.

The Rebbe responded on the eve of the Jewish New Year:

Our personal interest in the cause of Education, coupled with the influence of your exalted position, goes a long way in promoting the vital importance of Education…

On February 7, 1979, on the anniversary of the passing of his predecessor, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, of righteous memory, the Rebbe gave a public address. Here are some excerpts:

Since last year, when the U.S. Congress passed the J. H. Res. 770, authorizing and requesting the President to proclaim 18th of April, 1978 (11 Nissan, 5738) as "Education Day, U.S.A.," we have witnessed a growing awareness of the importance of Education as one of the highest priorities of the nation. No where has this awareness been more evident than in Congress and, especially, in the Executive Branch of the government.

President Carter, in his State of the Union message at the beginning of this year, 1979, gave forceful expression to the urgent need of education reform. He has proposed an imaginative and sweeping program of restructuring the Federal stand on education through the creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Education, at the same time requesting Congress to approve a significant increase in federal aid to education. That he has done this at a time when cutting federal expenditure—even in this vital area—would have been more popular in certain sectors, bespeaks his courage and conviction that upgrading the educational system is "the noblest task of government," and in the nation's most vital interests.

The President's proposal is a very real and practical step in the Nation's bicentennial history to give new direction and dimension to its educational system. I hope and pray that his conviction and concern will be shared by the vast majority of Americans of all walks of life.

The Rebbe wrote to the President following the talk. The Rebbe's letter is dated February 9, 1979:

Indeed, the U.S. government, and you Mr. President personally, are in a unique position of influence among the nations of the world, particularly those benefiting from U.S. economic, cultural and other forms of aid, to encourage them to follow your example and to share your "conviction that the noblest task of government is education"—to quote your statement (2/28/78)—a conviction which has been translated into bold, comprehensive action. I am confident that the response will be positive, and I venture to say that it would have a favorable feedback impact on those in this country who, for one reason or another, are not, as yet, enthusiastic about Congress legislation on the submitted project.

Read The Rebbe and President Carter

President Ronald Reagan
President Ronald Reagan

When President Ronald Reagan entered office in 1981, he continued the tradition. On April 4, 1982, Reagan’s first Education Day USA proclamation read:

...Amid the distractions and concerns of our daily existence, it is appropriate that Americans pause to reflect upon the ancient ethical principles and moral values which are the foundation of our character as a nation.

We seek, and steadfastly pursue, the benefits of education. But education must be more than factual enlightenment—it must enrich the character as well as the mind.

One shining example for people of all faiths of what education ought to be is that provided by the Lubavitch movement, headed by Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, a worldwide spiritual leader who will celebrate his 80th birthday on April 4, 1982. The Lubavitcher Rebbe's work stands as a reminder that knowledge is an unworthy goal unless it is accompanied by moral and spiritual wisdom and understanding. He has provided a vivid example of the eternal validity of the Seven Noahide Laws, a moral code for all of us regardless of religious faith. May he go from strength to strength.

On that same day the President wrote to the Rebbe:

You have so much of which to be proud. Since your first moments in the United States in 1941, you have shared your personal gift of universal understanding to the benefit of all. Time and again, your love and spiritual guidance have brought hope and inspiration to those confronted with despair. In bringing solace and comfort to the human spirit, you have helped to strengthen the foundation of faith which is mankind's most vital asset. Your life's work has been a response to that special calling few are privileged to hear.

President Ronald Reagan receives a Menorah from a delegation of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries
President Ronald Reagan receives a Menorah from a delegation of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries

The Rebbe responded on April 18, 1982:

...By focusing attention on "the ancient ethical principles and moral values which are the foundation of our character as a nation," and on the time-honored truth that "education must be more than factual enlightenment—it must enrich the character as well as the mind," while reaffirming the eternal validity of the G‑d-given Seven Noahide Laws (with all their ramifications) for people of all faiths—you have expressed most forcefully the real spirit of the American nation.

More than ever before the civilized world of today will look up to the United States of America for guidance as behooves the world's foremost Super Power—not merely in the ordinary sense of this term but even more importantly, as a moral and spiritual Super Power, whose real strength must ultimately derive from an unalterable commitment to the universal moral code of the Ten Commandments. Indeed, it is this commitment to the same Divine truths and values that, more than anything else, unites all Americans in the true sense of E Pluribus Unum.

On May 17, 1987 the Rebbe responded to that year's resolution:

...It is particularly gratifying that you use this occasion to bring to the attention of the Nation and of the International community the need of upgrading education in terms of moral values, without which no true education can be considered complete.

Consistent with your often declared position, that "no true education can leave out the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life and human striving," you, Mr. President, once again remind parents and teachers, in the opening paragraph of your Proclamation, that their sacred trust to children must include "wisdom, love, decency, moral courage and compassion, as part of everyone's education." Indeed, where these values are lacking, education is – to use a classical phrase – "like a body without a soul."

With the summer recess approaching, one cannot help wondering how many juveniles could be encouraged to use their free time productively, rather than getting into mischief—if they were mindful of – to quote your words – a Supreme Being and a Law higher than man's...

On August 25, 1987 the President responded:

I was very pleased to receive your message and to have the benefit of your reflections on the important role moral and spiritual values must play in the realm of education. The renewed attention being paid to these questions, not only in debates among public policy makers, but in academic and intellectual circles as well, is encouraging. I believe this trend is virtually certain to continue as the American people look for ways to apply the lessons of tradition to the problems facing our educational system and so many other areas of our national life.

I appreciate your contributions to these welcome developments and all that the Lubavitch movement has done to foster the inculcation of high moral and ethical standards.

Read The Rebbe and President Reagan