Original Article Published on The Jerusalem Post
The stone-faced members of the U.S. Secret Service and of the Israeli Shin Bet’s VIP protection unit all boasted the wire dangling from one ear, close-cropped haircuts, dark suits and ties. But you could tell them apart, during the Shabbat service at Park East Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, by their yarmulkes. The Secret Service men were having trouble keeping their flimsy black ones in place; the Israelis had brought their own: a white crocheted kippah here, another one complete with clips, and a blue suede third – something of a secrecy blooper, this, stamped in Hebrew with the words Misrad Habitahon, Defense Ministry.
The security was for Israeli President Moshe Katsav, visiting our community after talks with President Bush in Washington, and just hours after the horrific Tel Aviv nightclub suicide bombing.
The Secret Service had come around during the week to scout things out. Its list of demands included: no children’s services on the second floor, no use of the 68th Street entrance, no one in any of the lobbies during services, and metal-detector searches for all entering the building. (I had to remove my tallit from the bag, as there was some concern about my silver atarah, or crown).
The visit, and the poignancy of its timing, made for a unifying service. The Manhattan Sephardic Society, which usually holds services at the same time in another hall at the spacious 111-year- old Park East building, joined the Ashkenazi minyan, and cantorial duties were shared. Katsav was called for the 3rd aliyah, Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Yehudah Lancry chanted the haftarah, and New York Consul General Alon Pinkas held the Torah during the Prayer for the State of Israel. Katsav carried the Torah around the shul for all to kiss – with his security team walking in front of and behind him.
But most moving for me was watching Katsav’s mouth follow the words during the prayer for Israel. It was good to see that even the president turns to a higher authority.