That meant crunch time in Shemtov’s Dupont Circle office. More than 3,000 people had ordered tickets to watch Shemtov climb into a bucket lift and light the candles of the giant menorah on the White House Ellipse. Many of those tickets needed to be mailed. It probably should have happened the day before, Shemtov said. And the orders kept coming — about one family every 10 minutes.
But at sundown on Friday, Shemtov would set down his phone, step away from his computer and observe Shabbat, using no electronic devices until Saturday night. Work is forbidden on the Jewish day of rest, and in Chabad, that includes flipping switches.
Chabad is a branch of Orthodox Judaism, founded in Russia 250 years ago. It adheres strictly to Talmudic law, but it also engages in enthusiastic outreach, running 3,000 centers in more than 65 countries, with a new one opening on average every 10 days.
As is traditional in Orthodox Judaism, Shemtov does not shake hands with women unless they’re close relatives. He won’t budge on that principle, but he’s happy to engage with people who want to know why.
“I don’t get intimidated easily,” Shemtov said. “I feel that after the initial gust of force of denial or rejection, if I’m persistent and persuasive, I’ll get my point across. That’ll open up a warmer dialogue.”
For now, Shemtov was taking advantage of modern technology. As he held his office phone to his ear, planning the performance of the U.S. Navy Band during the Ellipse lighting, he tapped at his smartphone. Then he rose and hovered by his PC, scanning e-mails.
“Eric Cantor’s coming,” he said.
As a U.S. representative, Cantor (R-Va.) will get a VIP ticket, meaning he’ll be guaranteed a seat with a good view. He’ll be in the company of other politicians, ambassadors, city officials and people who helped organize the event. This year, VIP tickets are running out, Shemtov said.
The politician with the best view will be Jeffrey Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, who will help Shemtov light the menorah. That role typically goes to a prominent Jewish politician. In recent years, it has been performed by Rahm Emanuel, who was then the White House chief of staff, and Jack Lew, who assumed the same role this year.
Shemtov said he grew up with a reverence for Hanukkah, the eight-day festival commemorating the victory in 165 B.C. of the Maccabees over Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the rededication of the Temple at Jerusalem. The menorahs he saw glowing from windows and doorways represented religious freedom. In the Soviet Union, where his father was born, Jews kept their menorahs hidden for fear of persecution.