Having my Israeli family’s WhatsApp group filled with kvelling messages about Joe Biden was not on my bingo card for this year. But after the massacre of October 7, and the ensuing war and horrors out of Israel and Gaza, the unwavering, clear-spoken support of the President of the United States did a lot to lift up morale in the broken, bleeding, grieving state of Israel, and for many Jews who support it in the diaspora.
This Wednesday, the POTUS traveled to Israel, giving another speech in which he reminded Israelis that they are not alone, hugging a woman who distracted the terrorists that took over her home by feeding them cookies, and eating some local ice cream.
At the same time, Rabbi Shay Schachter from Woodmere, New York, visited the White House with 40 Jewish middle schoolers and stacks of boxes. In those boxes were over 18,000 letters of support that he had collected from people all over the world — from New York to Texas, to Santiago, Chile, and of course, from Israel, thanking the president for his support. The letters came from every age group — from schoolchildren to Holocaust survivors.
“I have so much family in Israel and all the help you’re giving really does make a difference. I feel so much lighter knowing America is helping Israel,” one young student from Woodmere wrote in one of the letters.
Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff accepted the letters on the administration’s behalf and sat down with Rabbi Schachter, the children and his staff for a conversation. Reading of some of the letters had many people in the room openly weeping.
“I am the first Jewish person ever married to a president or a vice president,” Emhoff said at the event, “and in this role, I have taken on fighting against antisemitism and hate. And will continue to do so no matter what.”
“I want you to know: I know how you all are feeling,” Emhoff told the room. “I feel the same way. Hearts are broken. I know this is a really tough time right now, and I know it’s scary. But I just want you to know that we have your back. We’re going to be there for you, and we’re going to be there for Israel, and we’re going to get through this. And so the fact that you all came here, and drove five hours or more and got on a bus, and came right to the White House with almost 20,000 handwritten letters that you accumulated just in the last couple of days, that helps us too. This gives us strength to keep fighting for all of you.”
In a phone interview after the meeting, Rabbi Schachter told Kveller, “I noticed that a number of the kids and the staff were crying during the presentation. They were visibly emotional, really uncontrollably crying. Just putting this in a historical context, [I’m] thinking about how unbelievably powerful this moment is, that school children are given the opportunity to sit down with one of the principals of this administration and be able to express what they really feel.”
Four days ago, Schachter put out the call for letters — and they just kept coming into his inbox. “It was extremely organic, [it] really wasn’t a lot of planning.”
“Often when there’s a letter campaign, people just click a button, send it in somewhere,” he said, but what stood out to him is that each letter he got was incredibly personal. “People wrote their own stories; they wrote about their relatives who are in Israel, or how this impacts them, or about the fears that they have.”
For Rabbi Schachter, this kind of expression of gratitude is what “Jews do best.” He pointed out that the Hebrew word for Jews, “Yehudim,” has “hoda” in the root of the word, meaning thanking and showing gratitude.
“I think as you continue to think about 80 years ago, contrasting hundreds of rabbis standing on the steps of the White House and not being able to do anything for their brothers in Europe and in all the different communities that were being massacred, to the current administration, who not only is being supportive, but as receptive to hear the actual voices of children and of community members all over the country and all over the world, is something that is incredibly inspiring,” he said.