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US Senator and the Knesset Speaker

About a decade ago, I had the honor of running the Museum of Tolerance in New York City. We had a visitor experience that covered many types of genocide with a particular emphasis on the Holocaust. I hosted politicians from all over the world as a result of our proximity to the United Nations. I could always tell how the experience was affecting the guests by how often they would check their phones. Many were very taken and on occasion moved to tears. Others texted their way through the visit and clearly were not engaged. 

I realized that, just as with most people, there were politicians who were able to engage on a soulful level and had retained some of the passion that led them into the service of mankind. Others had forgotten why they embarked on their journey and couldn’t get out of the hamster wheel of their political life. This past week I spent time with two career politicians, one Israeli and one American who were deeply soulful gentlemen. 


Aish solidarity mission


The Aish Solidarity Mission concluded this past Sunday night. Expertly run by Rabbi Daniel Rose and our team in Israel, it was one of the deepest, purpose-driven experiences I have ever had. From an intense tearful briefing from one of the survivors of Kibbutz Alumim to a BBQ that was sponsored for the leadership of the battalion running the Gaza war, each moment was full of emotion. I was proud to have Aish Branch Rabbis from all over North America leading their communities.

I asked Aish Director of Political Affairs, Yanky Schwartz, if we could take the group to the Knesset for a special, high-level briefing. This was no easy task as even not in wartime, taking a large group into the Knesset is challenging. Presently, the only business being handled at the Knesset is war related. The visitors’ gallery has been shut down since the war started and in each seat is a picture of one of the captives held in Gaza. Yanky told me he would do his best and see who would be appropriate and available to brief us.


Aish at the Israeli Knesset


Two days before the scheduled visit, we were informed that the Speaker of the Knesset, Amir Ohana would be available. As the person responsible for running the Knesset this seemed to be the perfect fit for our group. We met in one of the large caucus rooms appropriately called the Jerusalem Hall. Speaker Ohana is a proud Moroccan Jew who traveled to Morocco right after the peace treaty was formalized between the Kingdom and Israel to strengthen the ties between the two governments. 

Speaker Ohana gave us a rich and full briefing of what was going on behind the scenes of the war. Usually when someone of this level concludes his talk, their aides usher them out quickly to the next meeting. This time, the Speaker graciously took many questions. As we wrapped up, he thanked us and said ‘Am Yisroel Chai,’ which has become the rallying cry of this war. Upon hearing these words from the Speaker our group spontaneously broke into song. The Speaker was visibly moved by our impromptu performance and he said that we must all pray for the captives and then he reiterated the importance of our prayers.


Aish mission at the Israeli knesset


It was a powerful moment to be standing in the parliament of the Jewish people during a war against one of the most horrific, cruel enemies we have ever faced and hear the Speaker of the Knesset urge the Aish community to beseech the Almighty for mercy for our brothers and sisters in captivity. We all left with a sense of responsibility to rally our communities back home to both fight on a political level for Israel and to continue to beseech the Almighty for His mercy. I am grateful to Speaker Ohana for giving us his time and passing along this important message.


Senator Mike Lee and Hillel Scheinfeld on the Aish rooftop


This past Wednesday night, Aish COO Hillel Scheinfeld asked me if I could squeeze in a dinner at Aish with US Senator Mike Lee before my flight to the United States. I told him it would be my honor. Senator Lee has been a staunch friend of Israel throughout his entire career. His trip to Israel was being coordinated by Aish friends Sara Paley and Ruth Lieberman. The Senator was accompanied by his wife, Dr. Sharon Lee. I met the Senator when he first was elected and at that time, I presented him with a mezuzah which still hangs in his office. 

From the moment our visit started on the Dan Family Aish World Center rooftop our discussions were deep and fascinating. At the model of the Temple we talked about King David and King Solomon’s roles. It turns out that we share the same favorite verse when G-d tells the prophet Samuel, as he searches to anoint the next king from the sons of Jesse, that while man looks at the exterior of a person, G-d looks into a person’s heart. We continued the spiritual and philosophical discussion into dinner. Sharon Lee was as articulate and passionate as her husband. At some point we shifted the conversation to speak about US congressional support for Israel and how many factors had contributed to a shift in attitude over the past decade. We also addressed the rampant antisemitism that has consumed university campuses.

 Aish staff & U.S. officials on the Aish rooftop


Mike is probably one of the strongest friends of the Jewish people in Congress and he expressed how important it was for him and his wife to show their support in person. At one point we spoke about the future of Jews in America and if there is a way out of the disaster on university campuses across the United States. I am generally fairly guarded when I meet with politicians but with Mike, I felt like I was sitting with family. I was very honest about what I perceived as the perspective of many Jews today. 

I told them about my experience in Rome many years ago when I traveled there to meet with Pope Frances. The night before meeting the Pope, we were having dinner with a retired Cardinal from the United States. After a long and extremely friendly dinner he shared the following story: The Cardinal had attended an interfaith meeting in Atlanta and as a part of the program they split off into subgroups. He was paired with a young Rabbi. They were instructed to share their thoughts about each other upon their first meeting. The Rabbi shared that when he first met the Cardinal he thought to himself that he could trust him. The Cardinal responded that he was taken aback and assured the Rabbi that he was a very trustworthy person. The Rabbi shook his head and said what he meant to say was that ‘when they come for me, can I trust you to save me.’ The Cardinal shared with us that it was after this experience that he only first understood how Jews view the world. 

I told Mike that Jews love America deeply and completely. We are proud of what the country represents as a beacon of democracy. Yet as the Jews have been thrown out of and mercilessly persecuted by every country we have been in for 2000 years, culminating with the Holocaust only 80 years ago, we are nervous. The trends we are seeing across the United States where antisemitism has reached unprecedented levels has all the indications of not slowing down. 

In many ways, Hamas has unintentionally lifted the masks of so many, and we now truly know who are the real friends of the Jewish Nation. It is within this context that Israel is so valued by every connected Jew in the world. We have our own country where there is no question what its reaction will be when Jews are in danger. Israel is completely unified behind this war and we will not sleep until every one of our captive brothers and sisters are brought home. The night ended at the Kotel followed by hugs and tears all around. 


Images of Israeli hostages on seats in the knesset


On my flight back, I found myself reflecting about these two meetings. Walking through the Knesset where pictures of the captives are plastered everywhere. Having the speaker of the Knesset tell us that we must pray. Sitting with a United States Senator who is not only a supporter but a true brother to the Jewish people. For the first time in a while I felt uplifted. Every Jew in the world has not been OK since October 7. No one that I know has had a full night’s sleep since the butchering and kidnapping of our family in the South of Israel. 

Yet, somehow, the Jewish people remain strong. What would break most Nations has given us tremendous resolve. Those that hate us can spew their sick bile all they want. Being a Jew is built upon the creed that we are responsible for each other. This is a responsibility born out of a deep love for each other and a love of our Father in Heaven. This bond cannot be and will never be broken. Love is always stronger than hate. As Jews we must focus on this love and those who love us. Now more than ever before, we know who our real friends are. Let us celebrate our allies and focus on supporting each other with a loving embrace. Most importantly, let us continue to storm the gates of Heaven in prayer for our captive brothers and sisters.