Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

By Chris DeSouza
Assistant Editor 

To Orlando, he is Bobby; to the world, he is 'Ambassador'

 

Kannerland Orphanage children show their artwork, and Ambassador Mandell holds his self portrait.

Being an ambassador was not part of his career plans, but U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg Robert Mandell-known to many Central Floridians as Bobby Mandell- loves his job. In a way, one could say that Mandell has reinvented himself, as so many have done in their later years. He grew up in his father's (Lester Mandell) business, starting out as a laborer at Greater Construction Co. and eventually became its CEO. He earned a law degree from the University of Florida, bought his father's Greater Homes business in 2005, turning it into Greater Properties, Inc., and operated Meritage Homes of Central Florida. He could have remained a successful real estate developer right here, deeply involved in his community. However, his friend, former U.S. Senator Mel Martinez, introduced him to President Obama, who appointed Mandell to the President's Export Council and his life changed.

"The roles and responsibilities require a nice mix of all parts of my former lives-my business skills, my board responsibilities, my work on the Obama campaign and my service on the President's Export Council," Mandell said. "I even find my rusty law skills are needed occasionally. So I brought a lot in with me."

What he didn't bring-and had to learn-were how to run an embassy, learn a foreign language, and how the State Department, in general, works.

"Learning French has not been easy," he confessed, but he is proud that he can now converse easily in the romantic tongue. "I have had meetings in French and I have even given speeches in French, which is not something I thought I would ever be able to do. But I still take French classes every week, so I know there's more to do. It's a beautiful language." He added that now he is working on his "Luxembourish."

A day in the life of an ambassador

A typical day as an ambassador is never typical. Mandell admitted that he never gets bored. Some days are filled with meetings, staff briefings on projects and developments.

"I get to share my vision and ideas and we work on new programs and ways to reach our goals," he said. Challenges run the gamut from keeping up with cables from Washington to meetings with government officials to repairing a water leak in his residence.

Mandell enjoys his business and education outreach. He has visited more than 100 American and local companies to find out how they conduct business and discuss any challenges they may face, especially internationally. He also visits schools and has conversations with students about U.S. culture.

He spent his first year in Luxembourg speaking at every high school in the country –a total of 45-and one university. With each class, he discussed the role of the U.S. Army in WWII in Luxembourg.

"I spoke to them about the average 18-year-old American soldier who did not even know where Luxembourg was, but knew that the right thing to do was to fight for freedom, knowing full well that he might pay the ultimate price. I encouraged the students to visit the U.S. Military Cemetery where 5,076 American heroes are buried, including General Patton. Those soldiers died at the famous WWII Battle of the Bulge, which occurred here in Luxembourg. We also discussed the values and culture of America, both the positives and some of the things they do not see as positive-such things as our junk food and our military interventions. They are bright, multilingual kids who ask really tough questions. Finally, we discussed the opportunity of studying in the U.S. and attending one of our great institutions of higher education to experience America first-hand," said Mandell.

"I feel it is so important the local youth learn the historical reasons for the friendship between our two countries. The German ambassador to Luxembourg will join me this time as I embark on another tour of every high school in Luxembourg. We will meet with students and teachers and discuss WWII, the reconciliation process and what a strong partner Germany is with the U.S. now."

Supporting our soldiers

When one thinks of the role of an ambassador, the usual mental picture is of pomp and circumstance and formal meetings with dignitaries. Those are part of an ambassador's life, however spending time with American soldiers ranks high on his priorities. He once hosted a barbecue for a group of Wounded Warrior veterans riding bikes through Luxembourg.

"In addition to the barbecue, I go to Landstuhl Hospital probably once a month to meet with wounded soldiers who have just come back from 'down range'-Afghanistan," Mandell said.

One of the highlights of his time in Luxembourg was when he went to Afghanistan for five days to meet and talk with U.S. military members, Luxembourg troops, and village elders throughout the country.

"Most touching though are the numerous memorial events commemorating the American participation in WWII," said Mandell.  "Luxembourg really remembers the sacrifices made by Americans, and the people here have more than 90 memorials and plaques across the country. It is my privilege to meet veterans from the war as well as their families."

Diplomatic relations

There are also receptions and conferences he is expected to attend. His most recent conference was about cyber-security where he had the opportunity to discuss common problems and develop new partnerships.

One of Mandell's priorities when he took office was to see if he could increase the exports from the U.S. to Luxembourg. In the past five years, U.S. exports have increased thanks to successive deliveries to Cargolux of their order of the new-generation Boeing 747-8F (freighter) aircraft, of which they were the launch customer starting in 2005. So the type of export is the same, but the value has increased.

Plans are in the works for what he calls "The Luxembourg Forum," which will bring together the U.S. Supreme Court and the European Court of Justice in 2014.

"We are very excited about bringing together the best legal minds in the U.S. and Europe to discuss synergies and similar cases for the very first time," said Mandell, who has already met with former U.S. Senator Mel Martinez and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, as well as Congressman Michael Turner (R-Ohio) and his staff, who were there for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly meeting, and Senator Bill Nelson during 2013.

"I am not sure if he is considered a U.S. leader, but Bob Dylan is coming to Luxembourg to perform and he is invited to go with me to visit the Kannerland kids!"

How this ambassador relaxes

Mandell is an avid painter and he makes time in his hectic schedule to paint, often with the children from the Kannerland orphanage.  "Those moments are really special to me," he said.

Mandell's relationship with the Kannerland kids is one of his greatest joys in Luxembourg. In fact, the Mandells have opened their house to children from the Kannerland orphanage to let them paint in the sunroom.

"I arrived in mid-November, exactly two years ago. The children here celebrate St. Nicolas Day on Dec. 6, and the U.S. Marines and I were delivering gifts to this orphanage, which is literally up the road from my house. The experience affected me in such a positive way that I reached out to them and asked what I could do to be part of their community. We decided to give the kids one-on-one attention during each school holiday and invite them over in small groups of five or six to paint, play the piano, and have lunch so we could really get to know them."

He also includes "celebrity guests" to paint with the children. The first guest was Mayor of Luxembourg Xavier Bettel, who just won the national elections and is in the process of forming a new government in Luxembourg. "He may easily become the nation's prime minister," said Mandell.  This man who may become prime minister was so amazed with the children's paintings that he hosted an art exhibit of their wonderful works of art. 

In addition to painting, he and his wife, Julie, create a haunted house each Halloween for the children and take them on "field trips." Last year he and Julie took all 28 children in the orphanage to EuroDisney.

A host with the most

This magnanimous ambassador has managed to successfully blend work with pleasure as he connects with Luxembourgers.

"I am having over a group of basketball players in a few weeks and we will have nachos, hot dogs and popcorn," he said. "We will have my staff talk about a number of issues in U.S. sports as well as about sports scholarships to study in America."

He also holds a kosher Passover seder dinner each year and invites community leaders and the archbishop, as well as the Islamic Shura leaders.

"I held my first Iftar dinner this year and really enjoyed that as well. It's a break fast for the Muslims during their Ramadan season. So, in the house the Nazi's used as their HQ in WWII, it seems a sort of poetic justice that both the Jewish and Muslim and Christian holidays are celebrated there."

Speaking of the ambassador's residence, the house was originally built in 1922 by a family that was in the steel industry. It was then bought by the Germans, and Gustaf Simon lived there for five years while he was the Nazi governor of Luxembourg. German composer Richard Strauss also stayed in the residence during the war.

"After WWII the house was given to the United States as part of the war reparations to pay back America for our contributions. Every single U.S. ambassador since the first, Perle Mesta-the 'hostess with the mostest'-have lived in this beautiful, historic residence," Mandell said.

Thanksgiving is Mandell's favorite holiday, and he and Julie cherish the opportunity to celebrate with official contacts and separately with their staff.

"We like to create a casual American atmosphere in the house and our guests can feel at ease to discuss, ask questions and enjoy themselves. The locals have been wonderfully welcoming and hospitable; Julie and I count many of them among our dearest friends. Part of my work here is to continue the momentum of goodwill that is felt by the Luxembourgers toward the Americans since the two world wars."

With many of the older generation now gone, Mandell sees the importance of using his best diplomatic skills to engage with the young people there to continue to forge strong ties between the U.S. and Luxembourg.

Luxembourgish Jews, Anti-Semitism and terrorists

Recently, articles have circulated about the increase in anti-Semitism in Belgium. Since Belgium borders Luxembourg, is Mandell aware of anti-Semitism in Luxembourg?

"Luxembourg is a very accepting place, 40 percent of the population consists of people mainly from other European Union countries. The local population realizes that they need the non-Luxembourgers to keep the economy thriving. For this reason they embrace people of all religious, racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Fortunately, Luxembourg does not seem to have any anti-Semitism, but we read disturbing reports from Belgium and Germany," he told the Heritage. 

What about the Jewish population in Luxembourg? Mandell explained that it is difficult to determine how many Jews live there because just after the end of the World War II, the government of Luxembourg outlawed any official poll which requires people to state their religion so that no group of people would face anything like the horrors the Jews suffered before and during the war.

"Having said that, there is an active Conservative synagogue and we estimate that approximately 1,200 people of Jewish faith reside in Luxembourg, as well as more cultural and expat Jews living here from other parts of the world," he said.

And for Jewish people who live there, Mandell said "life is wonderful in Luxembourg!" Every faith is free to practice or not practice their religion in peace. The government of Luxembourg recognizes Judaism and financially supports the synagogue and the grand rabbi, as well as supporting the Catholic church, which is 95 percent of the population, and the Chrisitan church.

"There are many interesting museums and memorials, including the Deportation Museum, the Wercolier Gallery in the Abbaye de Neumunster, exhibits in the national military museum and plaques and memorials erected all over the country where specific events occurred, for the many Luxembourgish Jews who were persecuted and killed before and during WWII, which is a sober reminder of our cultural past in this part of the world."

Jewish organizations are thriving in Luxembourg, including The Consistoire Israélite de Luxembourg; Communauté juive d'Esch-sur-Alzette; Chabad Lubavitch du Luxembourg; Or Chadash Liberal Jewish Community of Luxembourg.

"In the same shul, in downtown Luxembourg City, operated by the Consistoire Israelite, both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic services occur simultaneously, one upstairs and one in the basement," Mandell said.  "During the High Holidays, I attended both and was surprised that the Sephardic congregation was twice the size of the Ashkenazi one, at least for the Yom Kippur service."

So far, according to Mandell, Luxembourg has not had a problem with terrorist activity.

"Luxembourg works very hard to make the country an unattractive place for terrorists and other such groups. Of course with the open borders in Europe they must remain vigilant. This is on the mind of local community and government leaders," he said.

Mandell's future plans as ambassador

U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg Robert Mandell and his wife, Julie.

"I have no idea what is in store for tomorrow, but it will be a new adventure, I know that for sure," said the easy-going Mandell. He does know that he will continue to serve his various clients: namely American citizens living in Luxembourg, helping American companies do business here; and work with the government of Luxembourg on shared challenges and partnerships such as NATO and United Nations Security Council issues.

"Security Council issues are particularly important since Luxembourg has a seat at the table for two years," he said.  "My youth outreach program will definitely continue. As I mentioned, I will host a majority of Justices of U.S. Supreme Court for a conference with the European Court of Justice. And, of course, I will continue to visit the Wounded Warriors at Landstuhl Hospital and with my Kannerland kids, who have really become part of my family."

 

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