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A Shabbat to remember with the prime minister – reporter’s notebook

CM 28/08/2021

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WASHINGTON – Traveling with Israel’s first-ever Orthodox prime minister wasn’t supposed to be that different. His spokesman sent out a moving photo of him praying, wearing tefillin and a tallit, on the morning before his scheduled meeting with US President Joe Biden. But other than that, it was standard operating procedure.
Until midday Thursday, when it became clear that, following the ISIS attack in Kabul airport, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was not going to be able to meet with Biden until the next day. A meeting on Friday meant there was no way to fly back to Israel in time for Shabbat, and we were going to be stuck in Washington for two-and-a-half days longer than planned.
There have been prime ministers’ trips over Shabbat before; the Prime Minister’s Office doesn’t travel on Saturdays, as a policy. But this was the first emergency Shabbat stay that anyone in the delegation – including legendary Yediot Aharonot columnist Nahum Barnea, who has traveled with every prime minister since Golda Meir – could remember. And this was the first Shabbat stay by a prime minister in a COVID-19 “capsule,” meaning the entire delegation could not leave the hotel.

Bennett himself is Orthodox, and so are many of the people who surround him, so the Israeli Embassy in Washington jumped into action to make Shabbat happen, organizing a Shabbat dinner and a suite-turned-synagogue thanks to Chabad of Rockville, Maryland.
But the embassy only organized Friday night dinner, and that left the Shabbat-observing journalists, including yours truly and those from Times of Israel, Arutz Sheva and Makor Rishon, to try to figure out how to organize kosher food for Shabbat when we’re not allowed to go anywhere to get it.
I started doing research. The kosher restaurants that deliver in the area seemed to all be closed on Fridays. I downloaded Instacart, an app used to hire someone to go to the supermarket, buy things, and deliver them to you. Snacks and produce for Shabbat were all there and delivered in a timely manner, but kosher cold cuts proved much more elusive in the supermarkets within a short radius of the hotel. 
US President Joe Biden and Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chat during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US (credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)US President Joe Biden and Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chat during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US (credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
In my frustration, I tweeted a screenshot showing that the search for kosher food turned up such not-so-useful results as organic matzo and chicken consommé – from Manischewitz, of course.
That brought in a wave of offers of hospitality from Jewish Twitter followers from the DC-area community that was truly heartwarming. Dozens of people I had never met before reached out to offer to bring us food and a Torah to use for morning services. 
In the end, the Times of Israel reporter Lazer Berman, who had lived in Washington in the past, enlisted a friend to bring us some Empire turkey pastrami, vegetables, an array of Trader Joe’s spreads, kosher wine and, most importantly, black-and-white cookies. 
Of course, we were frantically handling the Shabbat logistics while working, texting about deli meat while in the White House Press Room, and in between sending news updates back to Jerusalem. 
The hotel’s ballroom was set up with a long buffet table, with challahs and Israeli wine. At the far end was another table with Shabbat candles for the women to light. Everyone was standing around the room in clumps – some Bennett advisers here, Shin Bet security guards there, intrepid reporters awkwardly trying to get them to talk to us. 
Bennett walked in with the energy of a Bnei Akiva counselor ready to start a Shabbaton. He stood at the buffet table and told us a few words of Torah about leadership. And then, when he was told there are still another 10 minutes until Shabbat, he launched into a second lesson, comparing the sins of Kings Saul and David, and their repentance. The bottom line was that a leader is judged not only by his mistakes but by whether he owns up to and learns from them. 
Then came Friday night prayers, with Arutz Sheva’s Yoni Kempinsky ably serving as chazzan, and the participants sang aloud. Bennett said the Mourner’s Kaddish, because it was his father’s yahrzeit. When the prayers ended, Bennett turned around to the small makeshift women’s section behind him and wished us a Shabbat shalom.
“That was very special,” he said of the prayer service.
And it was. Even when on a work assignment thousands of miles from home, the special atmosphere of Shabbat, that we had worked to create despite the circumstances, was palpable.
When it came time for dinner, Bennett walked around and talked to everyone and asked how they’re managing being stuck an extra couple of days. Asked how he plans to pass the Shabbat, he said he ordered 4 books. And then he left early.
That night, the journalists chatted about, among other things, how Bennett is friendlier to us than Netanyahu, who is famously (and to a great extent justifiably) suspicious of the media, and about our past work travels. 
Barnea held court, regaling the other reporters with stories of former prime ministers Rabin and Peres’s drinking habits and ambassadorial sex scandals. When a couple of embassy interns who don’t speak Hebrew passed by, I tried to explain to them that this was the Israeli equivalent of having Bob Woodward at the table.
The next morning, prayers zipped by, with the men splitting the Torah reading between them. Bennett’s chief of staff Tal Gan-Zvi organized a kiddush for us, with cinnamon rugelach and Milano cookies.
The rest of the day was spent walking up and down the hotel stairs, eating cold cuts and cookies, and reading in my room (The Grey Lady Winked by Ashley Rindsberg, very interesting).
The afternoon was sleepy and uneventful, but that didn’t change that this was a Shabbat to remember, a Shabbat with the prime minister. 
And when the sun set and three stars appeared in the sky, everything went back to normal: We had to bring our luggage to be checked by the Shin Bet and then we headed to Joint Base Andrews for our red-eye flight home to Israel.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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