By Larry Gordon
“America has drifted,” said former Senator Alphonse D’Amato, now 77, the man who hails from Island Park on Long Island and represented New York in the United States Senate for 18 years. He’s not happy about what he sees taking place today and the direction in which this country is headed.
The occasion for these remarks by Senator D’Amato was the commemoration of the 30th anniversary President Ronald Reagan’s visit to Temple Hillel in North Woodmere on October 26, 1984. And what a tribute that was to a special event in American history.
This presidential visit of three decades ago was the second time in our history that a sitting American president made an official visit to a shul. The other president to do so was George Washington, who visited the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790. So as you can surmise, this was indeed something extraordinary.
The host rabbi was Morris Friedman of Temple Hillel, and amongst the things revealed last Sunday was that President Reagan’s staff originally had selected a synagogue in Great Neck for the visit but the shul declined the honor because it was close to an election day and the congregation was not very supportive of Republican political positions. Temple Hillel was then approached for a variety of reasons, including its prestigious rabbi and the proximity to JFK Airport, particularly important if you are traveling in a presidential motorcade.
By all counts, it was a great distinction that lives with the members of this synagogue and the community in general all these years later. The visit took place just a week or so prior to Election Day that year. Reagan was running against former senator Walter Mondale and would score the greatest victory in the history of elections in this country. Reagan won New York—the last time a Republican accomplished that—and won in 49 states in total—all except Mondale’s home state of Minnesota.
The event this past Sunday paid tribute to Mr. D’Amato for his instrumental role in the presidential visit to the Five Towns and his overall involvement in issues of importance to the Jewish community—including his solid support for the state of Israel during his senatorial tenure and beyond.
Following Reagan’s address at the synagogue, the group proceeded to the rabbi’s home, which was nearby, to dine on a home-cooked erev Shabbos lunch. One of the speakers mentioned that in preparation for the luncheon at the rabbi’s home, the Secret Service allowed Mrs. Friedman to select the menu. Senator D’Amato said that he has no recollection of what they dined on that day because as he put it, “I was transfixed on what was taking place at the table.”
Yanky Brach of Brach’s Supermarket in Lawrence, who also attended Sunday’s event, says that as he recalls, Mrs. Friedman shopped for all the items and ingredients for the meal at his father’s supermarket in Queens and as she traversed the aisles making her selections, she was accompanied by a Secret Service agent who inspected all the products.
On today’s political scene and with a non-specific reference to the Obama administration, D’Amato simply stated that, in his estimation, “our leaders have lost their way.” Referring to the Senate report released last week on CIA enhanced interrogation efforts, he added that America should not be denigrating itself and that “we have no need to apologize to anyone.”
He says that our leadership has strayed from the once-upon-a-time ways of the Reagan administration. He adds that he believes he was elected to the Senate because of Ronald Regan, he misses being in office, and he longs for the time when American leaders based their actions on what was the right thing to do.
At the time of the Reagan visit to North Woodmere, James Baker, who would be a Secretary of State in the administration of the senior George Bush, was the White House Chief of Staff. In his remarks, D’Amato said that much of the talk with Baker and the president focused on Israel and the United Nations. “Interestingly enough,” D’Amato said, “not much has changed.”
Reagan’s remarks at the shul can be viewed in their entirety on the Reagan Library website. An excerpt from the president’s address to the congregation was played on Sunday and featured Reagan referencing the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, sounding the theme that he repeated more than a few times, declaring the words and his personal commitment of “Never Again.”
President Reagan also talked about the idea that anti-Zionism, which was then and still is today dominating UN activity, is nothing more than old-fashioned anti-Semitism wearing a poor disguise. It was appropriate to once again nod our heads and repeat what Mr. D’Amato had stated earlier—though three decades had passed, nothing much had changed.
Rabbi Friedman’s son David spoke of his recollections as a younger man of the presidential visit to his father’s shul and his parents’ home. The Secret Service was in the shul, the home, and the community for as much as a week prior to the visit. Special phone wires needed to be installed in the home so that the president could have immediate access to the Pentagon and the special red phone or hotline that the president needs instant access to in case of a nuclear attack.
David Friedman related that during the day preceding the visit, he realized that two of the women who were invited to the Friday lunch with the president in the Friedman home were in their ninth month of pregnancy and might at any time need to dash to the hospital to give birth. One of those women was his own wife and he expressed his concern to the Secret Service coordinator of the event. The immediate area would be completely frozen and no cars would be allowed to move within blocks of the Friedman home. In response to the concern, the Secret Service set up a helicopter landing pad across the street from the home in case one of the women went into labor. Neither of the women needed to take advantage of the helicopter service that day.
Amongst the other points made by Mr. D’Amato was that the Reagan presidency was a turning point of sorts in the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. He said there were few if any presidents as pro-Israel as Ronald Reagan with the possible exception of Harry Truman, who recognized the newly formed State of Israel in 1948. He observed that to that point it was the Democratic Party that was considered pro-Israel and the Republicans who were more critical of the Jewish state. That theory did not prove to be exclusively so right away, but today it seems that the Middle East reality has shifted and it is the Republicans who are most supportive of the Jewish state.
Other speakers at the commemorative event on Sunday included State Senate Speaker Dean Skelos and Town of Hempstead Councilman Tony Santino, in addition to the rabbi, Steven Graber. Numerous dignitaries and government officials were in attendance as well as the officers of the shul and members of the public.
Not only was the visit a great day for the Jewish community on Long Island, but the commemoration itself, 30 years later, was just as important and filled with warmth and camaraderie reminiscent of the good old days in America. It was a time to look back and recall a great leader who had his eyes on history along with a keen vision of the future of America and our relationship with Israel. We miss those days. Perhaps someday, somehow, they will be back. Let’s hope that they will be—and soon.
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