NEW YORK — Slotted to address the United Nations just hours before the start of the Shemini Atzeret festival on Monday evening, Israel’s first-ever observant prime minister Naftali Bennett was forced to remain stateside an extra day, for the second time in a month, in order to avoid violating traditional observance of the holiday.
But the premier used the opportunity to return to the Modern Orthodox synagogue that he and his wife frequented some 20 years ago when they lived in Manhattan as he launched his tech start-up.
Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) welcomed back Bennett and his entourage, with its senior rabbi Chaim Steinmetz introducing the premier to the packed crowd of nearly 200 people before services began.
Bennett later gave remarks after theMaariv service, stretching out a 15-minute time slot to fondly recall his history with the synagogue that began on a whim.
In one of his favorite stories to share in front of an American Jewish audience, Bennett tells how he and his wife Gilat were out for a walk one Sabbath afternoon on the Upper East Side when they passed a KJ sign for “Beginner’s Minyan.”
Sold by its inclusion of a free post-service kiddush buffet, the young couple began attending.
“The prime minister said [in his remarks] that it was here, not in Israel, where his secular wife established a connection to Judaism,” said one worshiper who was in attendance on Monday.
“It was a very warm speech during which he also talked about the bonds that unite Jews both here and in Israel,” another participant said. “It was a very homey, feel-good dvar, but light on the issues.”
The circumstances Monday were far more festive than those that prompted Bennett’s last extended stay in the US in late August. Then, a suicide bombing at Kabul’s international airport killing 13 US soldiers and some 170 of the civilians they were helping evacuate out of Taliban-ridden Afghanistan, led US President Joe Biden to push his Oval Office meeting with the Israeli prime minister from Thursday to Friday. Unable to leave the hotel due to the Health Ministry’s strict coronavirus guidelines at the top, Bennett participated in Friday night services and dinner in the ballroom of DC’s Willard Intercontinental.
This time though, the extra day in the US was planned in advance, and he was able to celebrate Shemini Atzeret with the same rabbi that welcomed him and his wife two decades earlier — Haskel Lookstein, who was in attendance on Monday evening in his capacity as KJ’s rabbi emeritus.
Entrance to the synagogue was limited to select members along with Bennett and his staff. While their religious colleagues had taken the night off to pray at other shuls, some of the non-observant members of the traveling press staked out on the corner of Park Avenue and 85th St, hoping to snap footage of the prime minister making his way back to the hotel from the synagogue.
It would be a unique sight as Bennett was going to walk the 1⅓ miles back to the Loews Regency Hotel in midtown, rather than taking the motorcade that brought him to KJ before the holiday had begun.
As they waited for Bennett to re-appear, longtime photographer Shahar Azran kept the press entertained, sharing photos and stories of the various prime ministers he has covered on trips to the United States. The one that roused the most laughs concerned Ariel Sharon, who found himself chatting with Michael Jackson at a dinner party for ten minutes before turning to an aide and asking who the young man was.
After the Kehilath Jeshurun services drew to a close, members began trickling out of the synagogue and the motorcade slowly rolled away down Park Avenue.
ראש הממשלה בנט מגיע לבית כנסת באפר-איסט-סייד, מקום אליו נהג ללכת עם גילת אשתו כשהתגוררו בניו יורק. הלוך הגעה בשיירה. בסיום התפילה, מפגש, יצטרך לחזור למלון ברגל pic.twitter.com/a4fxP1RsVk
— Tal Schneider טל שניידר تال شنايدر (@talschneider) September 27, 2021
Convinced though that the convoy was a decoy designed to lure them away from the prime minister, the half a dozen Israeli reporters hurried down Lexington Avenue, expecting to catch an unsuspecting Bennett there.
But the premier had actually walked some 25 blocks down 5th Avenue, snatching a peek of Central Park as baffled New Yorkers looked on, wondering about the identity of the VIP who required a motorcade dozens of vehicles-long that wasn’t even being used.
The press finally caught up to Bennett as he turned onto 61st, capturing the unique moment on their phones as NYPD officers shouted at them to remain on the sidewalk.
“Shabbat Shalom, Mr. Prime Minister,” one of the secular reporters shouted at the premier, confusing Shemini Atzeret with the Sabbath.
The prime minister waved before being ushered by his security detail toward the hotel.
The traveling press then debated among themselves as to whether the odd scene they had just documented was newsworthy enough to make it into the next day’s broadcasts.
“I’m using it. What other news is happening on the evening of a holiday?” said one of them. “We won’t have anything to report tomorrow anyways.”
Indeed, Bennett was expected to remain at his hotel on Tuesday before flying home at night. Israelis celebrate the Simchat Torah holiday a day before Jews in the Diaspora, so none of Manhattan’s many synagogues would be offering the applicable services for the Israeli prime minister.
Some had hoped Bennett would have used the Monday eve opportunity to visit a Conservative or Reform synagogue, in a gesture to the majority of US Jewry who are not Orthodox.
But the premier did make a point of recognizing the strength in American Jewry’s pluralism during an address to Jewish federation leaders earlier in the day.
“If there’s one thing I want to import from American Jewry to Israel, it’s the ability to listen, the ability to not put people in a box,” he said. “Here, you’re just a Jew, and you’re welcome.”
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