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A very Rahm Chanukah

WASHINGTON – Rahm Emanuel had a serious message about mutual responsibility to make in a pithy, punchy speech before he helped light the “national menorah” Sunday evening on the Ellipse in front of the White House.

Still, the White House chief of staff being, well, himself, he couldn’t resist a couple of one-liners.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who directs American Friends of Lubavitch, rushed in a “thanks” to the performers before calling Emanuel to the stage. After taking the microphone, the Obama aide quipped that “The U.S. Air Force Band, the Three Cantors, and Dreidel Man — sounds a little like the title of a Fellini movie.”

Chanukah 5770

Emanuel went on to make the lessons of Chanukah a paradigm for the collective responsibility for those not able to defend or care for themselves.

“Standing up for what is right, even when it is hard, is not a job for some other people, some other time,” he said. “It is a job for all of us.”

And still, expounding on the holiday miracle, he couldn’t resist a dig at his former habitat, Congress.

“The oil lasted longer than anyone expected — kind of like the health-care debate,” he said.

Chanukah started on a Friday evening this year, which meant that as a result of Sabbath restrictions, the opening ceremony had to wait until the holiday’s third day. That left Emanuel in the unenviable position of having to light three candles from the wind-blown crane he shared with Shemtov; Shemtov’s father, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov; a Secret Service agent; and a photographer.

This involved stretching to extend the shamas to the far end of the candelabrum — the younger Shemtov was ready with a cigarette lighter when the shamas blew out — to the oohs and ahhs of a thrilled and apprehensive crowd, apprehensive except maybe for Emanuel’s wife, Amy Rule, who laughed and took pictures as her husband held on for dear life.

The event, dubbed the “national menorah” by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, filled all 4,000 free seats — and then some — despite mud-soaked fields.

And add one more miracle to the Chanukah canon: Drizzling rain, which plagued the D.C.-area over the weekend, stopped just before the festivities started. JTA

This article was adapted from JTA’s politics blog (blogs.jta.org/politics).

 
 

With Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod gone, will the Jews have access to Obama?

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White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel addresses delegates in November 2009 at the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Washington. Robert A. Cumins/Jewish Federations of North America

WASHINGTON – They were two Jewish aides who had offices within shouting distance of the Oval Office.

But the resignation last week of Rahm Emanuel as White House chief of staff and the imminent departure of David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser, is raising the question of what the disappearance of the president’s top two Jewish aides will mean for the Jewish community

Top Jewish Democrats and leaders of Jewish organizations say there will be an absence — of optics, not substance.

“It’s not every day that a White House chief of staff has his kid’s bar mitzvah in a Conservative shul and takes the family to Israel,” said Matt Dorf, the managing partner at Rabinowitz-Dorf, a communications firm that represents liberal and Jewish groups.

“That gave a human face to this White House to many in the Jewish community,” Dorf said. “In terms of policy and the Jewish community’s relationship with the White House, I don’t expect any change in that relationship.”

The visuals are not unimportant, a top Jewish aide to a senior congressman told JTA.

“People like to have someone who looks like them near power,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “You say ‘Shanah Tovah,’ their faces light up.”

Nathan Diament, who directs the Washington office of the Orthodox Union, said that even the visuals wouldn’t suffer.

He noted that Jack Lew, an Orthodox Jew who likes to regale audiences with tales of the difficulties of reconciling observance with the 24/7 schedule of senior public service, is set to take over the Office of Management and Budget. The OMB director — essentially the administration’s numbers cruncher — is a cabinet-level position, one Lew also held toward the end of the Clinton administration. He is leaving his position as deputy secretary of state to take the job.

“If you’re measuring Jewish prominence, there will be prominent Jews in the administration,” Diament said.

With Emanuel in Chicago running for mayor and Axelrod set to leave early next year to run Obama’s re-election campaign, access won’t otherwise change, Jewish organizational officials across the board said.

“Axelrod’s role for being a key conduit for taking advice from Jewish leaders will presumably continue when he has a political hat, not a government hat,” said William Daroff, who directs the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Additionally, Obama’s official liaison to the community, Susan Sher, is still on the job — as chief of staff to Michelle Obama, the first lady, she occupies a fairly senior post.

Emanuel’s replacement, Peter Rouse, is seasoned at dealing with constituencies, including among the pro-Israel and Jewish communities, having worked as chief of staff to Obama when he was in the U.S. Senate and previously for Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader.

“It’s more important that that person have a positive disposition to issues of concern in the Jewish community than be Jewish,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who directs American Friends of Lubavitch.

Privately, Jewish officials said Emanuel’s departure could smooth relations between Obama and the Jewish community for two reasons: Emanuel had earned a reputation in Israel as anti-Israel, and his overall style had alienated core constituencies, among them the Jews.

One Jewish organizational official said Emanuel’s brusque “just listen to me” style had severely hampered Obama’s agenda, leading not only to tensions with the pro-Israel community but with gays, liberals, and groups seeking health-care reform.

“Part of the reason he got into the trouble he got into were relationship issues,” the official said.

Additionally, Emanuel’s departure means that on Israel policy, Obama no longer will be able to say, as he did in an infamous meeting with Jewish leadership in the summer of 2009, that he has Emanuel to check his policies and does not need to consult with the wider community.

It was a blinkered “If Rahm and Axe are Jewish and they think this is OK, it’s OK” policy, is how the Jewish organizational official put it.

The problem with that view, some Jewish observers said, is that White House staffers — even at that senior level — are likely to defer to the boss, whereas Jewish leaders would be blunter in their assessments. But with two Jewish staffers, Obama mistakenly thought he didn’t need to consult with the Jews, these observers said. They blamed that insularity in part for tensions over west bank settlement-building that dogged the first year of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship.

Despite those troubles, some Jewish organizational leaders were baffled by a view prevalent in the Netanyahu government that Emanuel somehow had guided Obama down a path that was hostile to Netanyahu.

Emanuel, in fact, had little to nothing to do with formulating Middle East policy, although he did take a role in selling it — most recently when he met with Netanyahu over the summer on his son’s bar mitzvah trip.

Furthermore, the two individuals now running the policy in the White House — National Security Council staffers Daniel Shapiro and Dennis Ross — are sensitive to Jewish concerns.

“Rahm was not running Middle East policy,” Diament said. “Dennis Ross and Dan Shapiro are still there.”

JTA

 
 
 
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