Getting to know the PM: Our unexpected Shabbat in a DC hotel with Bennett

Anyone who has served in the IDF knows the deep-seated dread of unexpectedly “closing Shabbat” — staying on base for the Sabbath. Having an anticipated weekend leave snatched away, after what may have been a long stretch of the dusty drudgery that military service entails, ramps up both anxiety — maybe I can still make it home? — and depression.

The advisers, security detail, and journalists who accompanied Naftali Bennett on his first United States trip as prime minister were years, or decades, away from their army stints. They were expecting a tidy two-day visit in which Bennett would forge a personal connection with US President Joe Biden, meet with his top advisers, and come to broad understandings on Iran, visa waivers, and military aid.

But they surely had not forgotten that plans can change abruptly.

The entourage was slated to take off for Israel on Thursday night, with plenty of time after landing at Ben Gurion Airport to get COVID-19 tests and make it home for Shabbat.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett boards a plane heading for the United States, on August 24, 2021. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

But the wheels came off those plans after a deadly suicide bombing killed 13 US soldiers and dozens of Afghan civilians at the Kabul International Airport.

A short delay

News of the blast filtered through the Israeli press corps as we sipped our Thursday morning coffee and made preparations to head over to the White House for the momentous meeting between Bennett and Biden.

As we clambered into white vans for the two-block drive to the White House accompanied by Secret Service agents, the talk was on the grim updates from Kabul, and how it would affect the meeting between the two leaders. But no one was seriously anticipating — at least not out loud – that it would drastically alter the entire visit.

After standing too long in the searing DC August sun and then making our way through security, we sat in the air-conditioned White House press briefing room waiting to be told that Bennett was on his way to his 11:30 meeting with the president.

Israeli reporters leave the White House as the meeting between US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is delayed, August 26, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

As 11:30 came and went, talk turned to a delay of a couple of hours at most. Nothing that would change the character of the entire trip.

Then the fateful announcement came through.

The meeting was indefinitely delayed but emphatically not canceled, according to Bennett’s office. We were told to grab our cameras and computers and head back to our rooms at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel.

And the calculations immediately began. How many hours after a presidential meeting could Bennett, an Orthodox Jew, take off from Andrews Air Force Base? Might the meeting be pushed to Friday morning? Were dozens of Israelis, including the leader of the Jewish state, going to “close Shabbat” in Washington?

As the hours dragged on, reality slowly began to set in.

US President Joe Biden pauses as he speaks about the bombings at the Kabul airport that killed at least 12 U.S. service members, from the East Room of the White House Aug. 26, 2021, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)

We were told that the cabinet meeting scheduled for Sunday in Jerusalem was canceled.

“When is candle-lighting in DC?” one of the reporters wrote in the WhatsApp group at 2:30 p.m.

Minutes later, the White House released a statement announcing that “the President’s bilateral meeting with H.E. Naftali Bennett, Prime Minister of the State of Israel, has been rescheduled for tomorrow.”

Closing Shabbat

We were going to spend Shabbat stuck in our (very nice) hotel, forbidden to go outside in order to maintain our coronavirus “capsule” and thereby avoid an extended quarantine back in Israel.

Within minutes, the members of the delegation were frantically calling their spouses to tell them to take the kids to the grandparents for Shabbat. The religious journalists began inquiring about whether the Israeli Embassy would be providing Shabbat food, and sent feelers out to Bennett’s staff to see if there would be a minyan and whether we would be able to secure a Torah scroll. Stuck in the hotel, some began looking for ways to order books to pass away the long Shabbat afternoon hours.

By Friday morning, the picture had become more clear. The Bennett-Biden meeting would take place at 10:30 a.m., followed by statements to the press before an expanded working meeting with senior advisers.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) meets with US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House, on Friday, August 27, 2021, in Washington, DC. (GPO)

The embassy, we were told, would set up a synagogue in a 10th-floor hotel room, and would put together a Friday night dinner appropriate for the occasion.

For Shabbat lunch, however, we would be largely on our own, aside from some cold chicken sandwiches in the fridge.

DC-area Jews began reaching out to me and my Jerusalem Post counterpart Lahav Harkov.

My friend David May, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, was the one who save the day. Pushing his son in a stroller, May made his way around Georgetown and Foggy Bottom, stopping at supermarkets with respectable kosher sections to pick up loaves of challah, cold cuts (and one pack of Tofurky because he’s a vegetarian), Moscato wine, and vegetables to make a salad.

Though White House attention was very much on Afghanistan, the meeting indeed took place Friday morning. The Israeli side felt the talks with Biden went well, and Bennett’s advisers highlighted the president’s command of details and the warm personal connection created between the two leaders.

Shabbat in the ballroom

After a 4 p.m. briefing for the Israeli press and some time to use the gym and prepare for Shabbat, the entire Israeli delegation — Bennett, his advisers, security guards, journalists, and local embassy staff — gathered in the hotel ballroom for Shabbat.

After all the worry and last-minute bustle, the atmosphere became entirely different as we walked into the ballroom. The embassy had laid out an appetizing spread on a long stretch of tables in the middle of the room.

An improvised synagogue at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his entourage to pray over Shabbat on August 28, 2021. (Israeli Embassy in Washington)

As in the IDF, once Shabbat begins, all the disappointment about not being home dissipates, and people focus on the opportunity to spend a unique 25 hours together.

Still, with everyone seeing each other in their Shabbat finery for the first time, and tight knots of people huddling together awkwardly while they waited for someone to tell them what to do next, the room had the unmistakable feel of an NCSY shabbaton — a youth group Shabbat event.

(For me, it recalled my NCSY days especially strongly because I was standing alone.)

As they waited for the event to begin, journalists and advisers stood in small groups laughing. A group of secular reporters and Bennett staff — not entirely sure about the order of things but aware that wine was part of the ritual – opened several bottles and celebrated that part of Shabbat a bit early but with plenty of enthusiasm

But, as in the army, the walls between individuals in different roles – “distance” in IDF-speak – crumbled to some extent when Shabbat came in.

As they waited, journalists and advisers stood in small groups laughing. A group of secular reporters and Bennett staff — not entirely sure about the order of things but aware that wine was part of the ritual – opened several bottles and celebrated that part of Shabbat a bit early but with plenty of enthusiasm.

Then Bennett walked into the room, energetically banging elbows with the crowd as he took up his position at the head of the table.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett gives a ‘dvar Torah’ address before Friday night Shabbat services in Washington DC, August 27, 2021 (screenshot)

He was entirely in his element as he began his address.

“You have energy for a short ‘dvar Torah’?” he asked the room to laughs.

“If you want a long one, that’s also possible,” he said.

Bennett spoke about Psalm 23:4, which would be recited minutes later during the Friday evening prayer service: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

Bennett said he had wondered why David, whose sins seemed far greater than Saul’s, was still deemed worthy of leading the Israelites. His conclusion was that despite his considerable flaws, David took responsibility for his failings, without which one cannot lead

He cited a commentary that interpreted the passage as referring to the individual becoming evil when faced with hardship, and how important decency and morality are in public life, even amid the bickering and jockeying that is typical of Israeli politics.

Enjoying his temporary return to the role of youth group adviser he once played as a teenager in Haifa, Bennett decided to keep going.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett greets members of the traveling press who are with him on his US trip, at a Friday evening sabbath service organized for the Israeli delegation at their Washington hotel (Channel 12 screenshot)

Bennett began a second dvar Torah, revealing that when his former New Right party failed to cross the electoral threshold in 2019, he read the Book of Samuel twice as he reflected on his defeat and on his political future.

He said he had wondered why David, whose sins seemed far greater than his predecessor Saul’s, was still deemed worthy of leading the Israelites. His conclusion was that despite his considerable flaws, David took responsibility for his failings, without which one cannot lead.

“A leader is not meant to be perfect,” Bennett told the room. “We all have flaws. In the end, the question is, do you take responsibility? Do you do what is right, or do you just do what the people say?”

“It will be very nice here, I think,” he concluded. “Yalla, Shabbat Shalom.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett arrives for a Friday evening sabbath service organized for the Israeli delegation at their Washington hotel, on August 27, 2021. (Screenshot/Channel 12)

The prime minister then headed over to the makeshift synagogue outside the ballroom, where about 15 religious guards, journalists, and advisers sang the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers, led by the mellifluous voice of Arutz Sheva deputy editor Yoni Kempinski.

That Shabbat, Bennett was observing the sixth yahrzeit, or anniversary of the death, of his father Jim — the first time he had failed to attend the memorial service in Israel in person — and so he recited the Kaddish prayer between Kabbalat Shabbat and the evening service, Maariv.

Back in the ballroom, Kempinski led the hundred or so Israelis in a beautiful rendition of Kiddush over a cup of wine, and your humble correspondent made the Hamotzi blessing over bread, somewhat less melodically.

As most of the room crowded around the salads and salmon, the journalists gathered around Bennett, who was more than happy to speak further about his visit to the White House as his spokesman hovered nervously by his side.

Before he left to eat in peace in his suite, Bennett went over to every journalist to swap a few words and make sure he introduced himself properly.

Times of Israel diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman surveys the Shabbat dinner set up in the ballroom of the Willard Intercontinental Hotel in Washington DC, ahead of Shabbat services with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, August 27, 2021 (Daniel Estrin/courtesy)

Once the prime minister was gone, the room started to empty out. Most of the press corps found themselves at a round table with award-winning veteran journalist Nahum Barnea, who regaled the group with unknown and often ribald tales of his years covering figures like Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak.

Shabbat day was more subdued, as most of the delegation spent the day in their rooms or sitting in the hotel café.

The 9 a.m. minyan on the 10th floor was less well-attended. It featured a brave effort by Bennett’s head of security and chief of staff to get through the Torah reading without any preparation.

Shabbat lunch was a quiet and entirely enjoyable affair — cold cuts, pickles, Polar seltzer, and half moon cookies — with five religiously observant journalists.

Though dozens of people found themselves stuck for another two days in a hotel they weren’t allowed to leave, in the end every member of the delegation — religious and secular, journalists, advisers, and Bennett himself — was granted an unexpected break from the high-stakes diplomatic and political grind.

They had a full day to reflect, enjoy each other’s company, and receive an important reminder that in many ways, we Israelis are all in this together.

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