President George H.W. Bush, who passed away this weekend, was not only a leader of great honor and integrity, but a compassionate human being who went out of his way to help countless people he met during his long and productive life. I am blessed to have been one of those people whom Mr. Bush impacted for the better.
I met Vice President Bush in 1987 at the Bar-Ilan University convocation in New York which was awarding him an honorary doctorate. Mr. Bush had been a good friend of my father, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, senior rabbi at Park East Synagogue, since serving more than a decade before as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
Mr. Bush inquired as to what I was doing with my life and I responded that I was the 18th generation of a distinguished rabbinical family and was proud to be serving my community. Vice President Bush responded in a heartfelt tone, “The rabbinate can be the conduit for you both to serve the Jewish community and to be involved in public service.” He added, “You were taught these values by your father, just as I was taught by mine. Like your father, I too hope that one day some of my children will follow me into public service.”
I reflect back on that conversation today, more than 30 years later and I’ve gone on to create the Hampton Synagogue and the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU), through which I have been able to help restore the historic Black-Jewish alliance in America and pioneer the effort to build Muslim-Jewish relations in North America, Europe and around the world.
Four years after our first encounter at the Bar-Ilan convocation, I had a second conversation with by-then President Bush at a large interfaith gathering in Washington. It was the immediate aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, the military action spearheaded by President Bush in which a U.S.-led coalition defeated the army of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and drove it out of Kuwait. At the event, President Bush clasped my hand and thanked me warmly for appearances I had recently made on the Today Show and the CBS Morning Show, during which I had defended Desert Storm as a “just war,” a defensive military campaign undertaken not only to liberate Kuwait, but deter future acts of armed aggression by dictators operating on the premise of ‘might makes right.’ President Bush congratulated me for having bagged “consecutive appearances on national talk shows,” and then quipped in a quasi-conspiratorial tone, “I see that the family business is going quite well!”
I was deeply touched at that moment that despite all of the world-transforming events and landmark foreign policy decisions in which George Bush had been immersed since becoming president – from successfully managing the fall-out from the collapse of the Soviet Union, affecting the reunification of Germany in a way that strengthened European unity, and marshalled a diverse coalition of nations to fight Saddam Hussein – he had somehow remembered his discussion four years earlier with this young rabbi.
Those two encounters sum up for me the life and legacy of President George H.W. Bush – a man of civility, grace, and generosity of spirit, driven by destiny, duty and principle, but one who was genuinely humble and gave liberally of his time and energy to help others. From a Jewish perspective, I will never forget that, among his myriad accomplishments, Mr. Bush orchestrated the release of tens of thousands of Jews from the Soviet Union and, Ethiopia. Sadly, a slowdown in the U.S. economy caused him to lose his bid for a second term as President, yet he accepted defeat gracefully, without self-pity or recriminations. I believe he will be remembered as the greatest one-term President in American history, as well as a class act, a mensch, whose kind we sorely miss in politics today.