At a rabbinical convention in 2003, the star speaker was Tevi Troy. He was addressing the conference to describe his experience as an Orthodox Jew working in the highest levels of government in Washington, D.C. He had begun his career on the staff of Senator Ashcroft, Republican of Missouri. One day he approached the chief of staff to request a day off for the religious holiday of Shavuot.
"Never heard of it," his supervisor balked.
"It celebrates the anniversary of the Jewish People receiving the Torah at Sinai."
"Oh, Pentecost! Why didn't you say so?"
Troy dramatized the advantage of working for devout non-Jews by contrasting this episode with the story of an Orthodox young man who was an aide to a secular Jewish Senator. When asked to buy his boss non-kosher food, he did it, relying on the argument that he was only facilitating what could be easily accessed without his help. But when the boss asked for a sandwich on Passover, the aide had to refuse, since it is prohibited to benefit from Chametz. The outraged Senator terminated his employment.
At the time he gave me his card but somehow our paths never overlapped again until I located him at the Hudson Institute in D.C. – policy kollel - just the other day. We got a chance to catch up on his adventures these last seven years.
"I was given opportunities to serve the country which has been the most welcoming in history to the Jewish People, and I have been honored to perform that service. I was very fortunate in working under superiors who were profoundly committed to religion. They always respected and facilitated my mitzvah observance, making every accommodation." This is what Tevi has to say after a decade of employment by Republican Senators and Presidents.
Ashcroft was his first boss, arguably an easier entry point because Tevi became the second Orthodox Jew on staff. Always easier to follow the blazed trail. Senator Ashcroft was not only an evangelical, he was a member of a fairly small denomination which often experiences derision from among Christian ranks. Tevi felt this made Ashcroft more sensitive to the religious needs of the Jews in his office.
Later, Tevi had the opportunity to publicly reciprocate the loyalty he had received from his employer. When Ashcroft was nominated to be the first Attorney General in the administration of President George W. Bush, he met resistance from secular Jewish groups including the Anti-Defamation League of Bnai Brith and the – wait for it! – National Council of Jewish Women. They were afraid that "his religious views will have an impact on his role as attorney general."
Tevi countered with an article in the New Republic entitled "My Boss, The Fanatic." He wrote: "Ashcroft, as his detractors suggest, is a religious fanatic, because his religion dictates that he cannot smoke, gamble, drink, curse or dance. But it may be precisely because he is scorned as a fanatic that he has been so tolerant of my own religious practices…"
When Ashcroft joined the Bush administration as Attorney General, Tevi went to work first for Chao at Labor and then in the White House as President George W. Bush's liaison to the Jewish community. The President told him that he wanted the liaison office to do more than arrange meetings with the same leaders of Jewish organizations whose names are always in the newspapers. He wanted to encounter lay people, community people, what he described as "grass roots."
Before one such gathering, Tevi briefed the President about an elderly Jewish woman who had spent many years in Orthodox education. The President knew not to shake her hand and he treated her with utmost deference. But when he delivered remarks about the military situation in Afghanistan, he got a little carried away and used a vulgar word to describe the terrorists. Suddenly he caught himself.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am."
"Say it again!" she retorted, and the audience burst into laughter.
With Tevi in charge, the White House Chanukah dinner turned into a major event. "Whichever list we had, it was always the wrong list," Tevi jests. Rabbis and lay leaders kept calling to wangle invitations for themselves or colleagues. At one point Karl Rove, chief adviser to President George W. Bush, exclaimed: "The Hannuka dinner is the hottest ticket in Washington!"
Initially, that dinner followed the pattern of diplomatic events with Israeli heads of state, where the kosher appetizers were on one buffet table and the non-kosher on another. The non-Jewish participants ate the food prepared by the White House while the kosher fare was imported from a local caterer. One year, during Bush's first term, an Orthodox guest accidentally ate from the wrong table.
When First Lady Laura Bush got wind of the fiasco, she vowed it never happen again. Henceforth the Chanukah dinner would feature only strictly kosher food prepared on the premises. Soon a team of Chasidic Jews with beards and tzitzis were zapping the White House ovens with blowtorches while the Secret Service fidgeted edgily in the background. This was the Era of Bush: a glatt chicken in every pot and two minivans in every garage.
To make the dinner more hospitable for the devout, Tevi instituted a minyan for maariv in the Red Room. The White House ushers knew to keep the room off-limits to others that night. The only problem with the Jewish crowd, Tevi chuckles, was their reluctance to depart. Generally, when events are scheduled, say, from six to eight p.m., folks start filing to the door before the cuckoo's first caw and clear the threshold by the eighth. Not so our Chanukah revelers; their oil kept burning. The clock struck eight and no one showed a sign of budging.
One year, the ahems were echoing and the hints were dropping, yet nary an eyelash twitched. The last busboy was leaving for the last bus but the Jews were still heeding Ecclesiastes: 'If the spirit of the ruler asserts itself over you, do not leave your place…' Exasperated, Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, himself a Jew, exclaimed: "It is time to have the honor guard unsheathe their ceremonial swords!" Tevi jumped in to restore the mood by telling the old joke that Gentiles leave but don't say goodbye while Jews say goodbye but don't leave. Karl Rove loved that and adopted it into his repertoire of repartee.
Another incident reflected on the eccentric cultural flavor of the Orthodox Jew. The President often was more efficient with his time than his scheduler anticipated, so visitors were asked to be standing by an hour before their appointed time. Once a group of rabbis were to have a session with the President, but when Bush strode in 45 minutes early, no one had yet arrived. Tevi ran frantically out into the street, where he was shocked to see all the conferees huddled at the corner of Seventeenth and Pennsylvania earnestly playing Jewish Geography. They were warming their souls while the President cooled his heels.
All in all, says Nathan Diament, Director of Public Policy for OU in D.C., when Tevi Troy was there "we had a member of our community literally steps from the Oval Office and we could be certain our concerns were being heard in the White House." Diament dramatizes the heimish feel by recalling one occasion when Tevi's turn to address a Jewish group came between Karl Rove and Josh Bolten. Tevi told the crowd: "Now I know how mincha feels on Yom Kippur between mussaf and ne'ilah…"
Tevi's four children were born during those years, each receiving a personal letter from the President to commemorate their births. Yet they never saw him during waking hours between one Sabbath and the next. He left before they arose and returned after they went to sleep. As for wife Kami, Tevi declares that were she not Jewish she would be a candidate for sainthood.
In the last year of the second Bush term, Tevi served as Deputy Secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services under Secretary Leavitt. There he sent word to all Senators that his Friday meetings must end an hour before sundown. At that time, the non-Jewish assistant would hustle him out the door. While he raced home in the car, official business was being transacted on his cell phone until he pulled up at the garage door.
Tevi did not head back to his native Queens, New York, after Michelle Obama hung the new drapes. He stayed in Washington at the Hudson Institute, doing whatever it is people do in think tanks during the lean years. Does that mean that if a Republican sends Obama to an early shower in 2012, Tevi is ready to return to active duty?
Hey, is the Chief Rabbi Jewish?