Nesenoff, the whistle-blowing rabbi, visits Orlando
On May 27, 2010 Rabbi David Nesenoff of rabbilive.com recorded the anti-Semitic “slur heard around the world” while visiting the White House for American Jewish Heritage Month. The rabbi and his son, Adam, were standing on the White House lawn when they crossed paths with “dean of the White House Press Corps” Helen Thomas, whom had covered every presidential administration from Eisenhower to Obama.
Nesenoff pulled out his flip-camera, and asked Thomas if she had any comments to make about Israel and the Jewish people (for film-shorts he was producing).
Much to Nesenoff’s surprise, Thomas replied, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.”
Thomas continued with suggestions that the Jews should return “home” to Poland and Germany. On March 3, Nesenoff shared his experiences as a whistleblower, journalist and filmmaker with an audience from Chabad of North Orlando at the Lake Mary Westin, where he was welcomed by Rabbi Yanky Majesky.
Nesenoff posted his interview with Thomas on his website following their encounter. Nesenoff reported, “We turned off the computer for Shabbos, and when we turned it back on, the clip had gone ‘viral’ with over 700,000 hits.” The rabbi accounts that he was suddenly in demand by “virtually every media outlet from CNN to Fox.”
Nesenoff remarked that he wanted to make the most of his 15 minutes in the spotlight, and sought advice on how he could do the most good. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleisher contacted Nesenoff, recommending that he carry a strong message—or the press would create one for him. The rabbi noted that quite suddenly he had access to the world’s best minds, and chose to call on Noble Prize Winner and renowned Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Wiesel advised Nesenoff seek counsel from the Chabad, where he attended morning minyan.
Nesenoff spoke to a series of rabbis and ended up with a message from Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, whom Nesenoff refers to as “a dear friend of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe.” Nesenoff has carried this message ever since, stating it to national audiences on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” and to smaller crowds like the one gathered at the Lake Mary Westin.
Nesenoff recounted, “If you have a child and you haven’t seen him in four years, he is still your child. If you haven’t seen your child in 50 years he is still your child. …We are the children of Israel (no matter where we are located now). The children of Israel, and the land of Israel are one.”
The rabbi’s message resonated across the airwaves and computer screens, across the White House lawn, and back again. Helen Thomas resigned from her job as columnist with Hearst Newspapers. President Obama said her comments were “out of line” on NBC’s Today Show, and expressed regret that an “esteemed career” should end in such a manner.
Nesenoff said that we live in a seeing-is-believing-it culture, and the power of his film clip was in the spontaneity and bluntness of Thomas’ comments.
He said that he too experienced a bumpy road, receiving countless emails, including a barrage of hate mail. In addition, Nesenoff expressed that “the press turned on me,” for what he refers as “taking down own of their own.”
Nesenoff repeatedly found his words taken out of context and misquoted. The rabbi mused, “When you give in to divine providence you have to accept it all.”
Toward the end of the evening, the rabbi said that the best way to fight anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish behavior is by “doing Jewish behavior,” such as lighting the Shabbat candles.
Nesenoff mentioned another way to fight anti-Semitism in an anecdote of a more personal nature. He said the Israeli defense system called the Iron Dome translates from the Hebrew kipat barzel into the English as the “steel yalmulke.” One day his teen-aged son said, “Enough!” to the anti-Semitic comments at his public high school. The next day his son put on his (steel) yarmulke and tzitzit, and wore them to school. From that day on no one messed with the “serious Jew.” Nesenoff stated, “Do mitzvahs; don’t fight by running away.”
As they exited the Westin, attendees JoAnn and Jerry Bloom reflected on Nesenoff’s animated presentation. Jerry Bloom concluded, “The rabbi took what could have been an isolated, undocumented incident and was able to develop it into an introspective, fascinating analysis of what anti-Semitism is all about.” The crowd lining up for Nesenoff’s book signing appeared to agree.
For more information about Nesenoff and his book, “David’s Harp,” visit Rabbilive.com. For more information about Chabad of North Orlando, visit jewishnorthorlando.com.