Reporter's notebook

Covering Netanyahu in New York on Shabbat? That’s no job for a Jewish boy

When the prime minister squeezes in a trip to the UN on a weekend between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, religious observance can be a real challenge. But not impossible. And I certainly didn’t go hungry

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

New York Police Department officers secure the Loews Regency hotel, where PM Netanyahu's delegation was headquartered (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
New York Police Department officers secure the Loews Regency hotel, where PM Netanyahu's delegation was headquartered (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

It’s tough being a Jew, the old saying goes. During Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s whirlwind trip to New York, being an observant Jew could have been nearly impossible. But with a little help from some friends, I managed… and publicly at least, so did he.

Israel is a secular state, and most of its leaders are not religious. Yet it has long been an unwritten law that senior representatives of the government may not be seen desecrating the Shabbat or Jewish holidays. When German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was buried on a Saturday in 1967, for instance, prime minister David Ben-Gurion famously walked behind the motorcade transporting the coffin.

Officially, Jerusalem still honors the tradition. Because of the scheduling of the United Nations General Assembly, the latest Netanyahu visit fell awkwardly in the four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, with a Shabbat in between. Under these circumstances, the Prime Minister’s Office logistics department had to push itself to the limit to at least symbolically uphold the state’s Shabbat observance.

When I booked my spot on the list of reporters flying with the prime minister’s entourage to New York, PMO officials alerted me that, if I were religiously observant, the logistics were going to be challenging. The plane to New York would leave from Tel Aviv immediately after Yom Kippur, I was warned, and the return flight would likewise depart minutes after Shabbat ended, to land just before the onset of the Sukkot holiday.

Still, I consoled myself by noting that some of the senior members of Netanyahu’s staff are observant. If an adviser like Ron Dermer can make the trip work, I reasoned, so can I.

The prime ministerial motorcade in New York's JFK airport (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
The prime ministerial motorcade in New York’s JFK airport (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

The beginning wasn’t too bad. Yom Kippur ended Wednesday at 6:08 p.m. in Jerusalem and reporters only had to be at the airport at 10. I had enough time to break the fast and take a shower before heading out.

Once we had arrived in the Big Apple on Thursday morning, though, it looked like the arrangements for the return flight to Tel Aviv two days later were going to be trickier.

Members of the traveling press usually stay in the same hotel as the rest of the prime ministerial delegation, but this time we had to arrange our own accommodation. So while Netanyahu and his entourage occupied several floors at the fancy Loews Regency on Park Avenue and 61st Street, I stayed in somewhat cheaper premises on 39th.

To enable an on-time departure straight after Shabbat, reporters were asked to bring their suitcases to the Loews on Friday afternoon for non-Shabbat-violating security checks. That meant we’d only have our belongings for not much more than 24 hours in Manhattan. Toiletries and clothes for Shabbat? Our problem. (Several non-observant reporters eventually negotiated a later arrangement that facilitated some Saturday shopping.)

Trickier still was that we were asked to be at the Loews ourselves by 7.30 p.m. on Saturday, ready to board the motorcade and drive to the airport. (All this on the assumption that the car would get us to the flight in time — no guarantee, given that we’d run out of gas on the journey in.)

But Shabbat in New York, I learned in a local synagogue, ended at 7:27. How was I supposed to wait for Shabbat to end so that, in my hotel room, I could pick up my wallet, phone and laptop, and then make it to the Loews in three minutes? Impossible.

Thankfully, a member of the prime minister’s delegation offered to store my briefcase and other non-Sabbath-appropriate possessions in his room at the Loews. I would be able to walk over to his hotel during the afternoon, pick up my belongings, and make the deadline. “Don’t tell anyone about this. If security were to find out, they would go nuts,” he whispered to me.

The lower-level Israeli officials and agents who bustled about the hotel throughout Netanyahu’s three-day stay were not compelled to observe Shabbat. His spokesman even gave television interviews, and anybody who walked anywhere near the hotel could see that the preparations for the Israeli delegation’s departure were going on during the holy day.

Journalists aboard the PM's Boeing 767 (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Journalists aboard the PM’s Boeing 767 (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

“Yeah, somebody told me that they shouldn’t actually be working now,” mused a New York cop, who usually patrols the far-flung 34th precinct but was ordered to the Upper East Side to help secure the Israeli delegation, as he watched Shin Bet security staff loading suitcases onto a bus at around 5 p.m.

They were efficient. The prime minister’s motorcade left the hotel just half an hour after Shabbat had ended. We made it to the airport in good time. On paper, at least, the Israeli delegation had honored the national religious imperative.

About half a day later, at 2 p.m. Israel time Sunday, Netanyahu’s Boeing 767 landed in Tel Aviv — with three hours or so to spare before Sukkot. An hour later — there were long lines at passport control and a lengthy wait at the baggage carousel — I was in a cab with two colleagues. I made it home to Jerusalem just in time to get ready for the holiday.

Oh, and to file this story. The lengths we journalists go to…

PMO officials, I should stress, went out of their way to make sure I at least managed to overcome the logistical complexities and eat.

“Are you set up for meals? If you need anything, you can come up to the 19th floor [of the Loews]. There’s kosher food all throughout Shabbat,” Gil Sheffer, the PMO’s chief-of-staff, told me.

I didn’t have to depend on the gracious invitation. My wife had remembered that three and a half years ago I interviewed the prominent rabbi of the Park East Synagogue, who invited me to his house for Shabbat if I ever came to New York. “Why don’t you get in touch with him?” she suggested.

Not sure the rabbi remembered me, I sent him an email. “Please excuse my Israeli chutzpah, but I was hoping your kind invitation is still standing,” I wrote. The rabbi, Arthur Schneier, immediately replied in the affirmative.

A champion of interfaith dialogue, Rabbi Schneier’s Appeal of Conscience Foundation on Thursday hosted a dinner in the fancy Waldorf-Astoria hotel, honoring Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper with the organization’s annual World Statesman Award. Among the 800 distinguished guests were Henry Kissinger, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor. I was more than delighted to dine at the Schneiers’ home the next night, and hear more about the event.

On Shabbat morning, I attended services at the Park East Synagogue — built in 1890, it is home to one of Manhattan’s premier Orthodox congregations — where I bumped into Sheffer. The PMO’s skullcap-wearing chief of staff was called up to the Torah and Schneier, speaking from the podium, praised Netanyahu for “sounding the clarion call of the shofar” to warn the world about the Iranian nuclear threat, and to the various Israeli officials present for making sure Israel was safe. “When our kids turn 18, they worry about getting into Ivy League universities. In Israel, the 18-year-olds do not think about that,” Schneier said in a nod to the servicemen and women of the Israel Defense Forces.

‘Israel is our home, but New York is our town house,’ said Netanyahu’s bureau chief

The rabbi had invited Netanyahu to attend services too, but the prime minister needed some rest and private time, he said. “Just for the record,” the rabbi added, “when Netanyahu was at the UN [where he served as Israel’s ambassador in the 1980s] this was his shul.”

At a kiddush following services, Schneier put Sheffer on the spot, asking him to say a few words to the congregants about Israel; Sheffer declined. Instead, the head of the Prime Minister’s bureau, Eyal Haimovsky, who is also observant, spoke for a few minutes. “Israel is our home, but New York is our town house,” he said, thanking the American Jewish community for its steadfast support of Israel.

The kiddush was more of a lavish lunch so I really wan’t hungry when, spotted by a PMO official in the Loews lobby later, she insisted I go up to the 19th floor and get myself something to eat. Still, how could I refuse?

Security checks negotiated, I surveyed a table spread with delicacies including exquisite cold cuts and an asparagus salad. Salads and cream cheese were on offer in an adjacent room. Not only had the PMO made the effort at Sabbath observance, it was even separating meat and dairy.

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