Rabbi David Nesenoff‘s on-camera interview with Helen Thomas more than two years ago has had ramifications beyond the furor over the longtime White House correspondent’s anti-Semitic and anti-Israel comments.
Following the experience, the Conservative rabbi and his family spent six months in Israel and embraced the Chabad Lubavitch movement.
“Because of what happened, my love for Israel grew more,” said Nesenoff, 52, who now lives in Boca Raton. “We’ve made a Chabad transformation. That’s thanks to Helen Thomas.”
Nesenoff, his son and a friend were at the White House for a Jewish Heritage Celebration on May 27, 2010 when they approached the 89-year-old Thomas for an interview. Nesenoff asked her if she had any comments about Israel.
“Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” Thomas said. “They can go home.”
“Where’s home?” a surprised Nesenoff asked Thomas. “Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else,” she replied.
Nesenoff posted the video on his website RabbiLIVE.com in early June and it went viral, receiving more than one million hits.
Although Thomas apologized, the nationwide furor over her remarks led to her sudden retirement from Hearst newspapers and the end of her career.
It has been a busy two years since the incident for Nesenoff.
He was named editor and publisher of The Jewish Star newspaper in New York and launched the Jerusalem Observer, an English and Hebrew language newspaper in Israel.
He also has been making films and videos. In his film “Pastrami and Politics,” Nesenoff interviews Jews in delis, focusing on the November presidential election. “They have a lot of remorse in voting for the president in the last election,” he said.
Nesenoff said he made a video that shows newly-elected Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi at a rally where a Muslim cleric says that the new capital of Egypt is Jerusalem and Egyptians should march to Jerusalem to the death as martyrs.
He also has spoken at Chabad Houses around the country and is planning a speaking trip to Chabads in Russia and throughout Europe. “We’ve become part of the rebbe’s army,” he said.
In the fall, Nesenoff’s son will be a student at the Chabad Lubavitch yeshiva in Morristown, New Jersey and his daughter will attend a Chabad school in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
Nesenoff said he is talking with a major cable television network about a reality show titled “The Rebbe’s Army.” “It will bring Torah into people’s lives and some lessons,” he said.
Rabbi Moishe Denburg of the Chabad of Boca Raton, where Nesenoff worships, said Nesenoff had a “tremendous dilemma what to do with this information when he had it. He used it to help Jewish communities realize the underlying anti-Semitism that sometimes exists in the most respected places.”
Nesenoff’s message, Denburg said, is “We as Jews have to be proud and secure in our right to the land of Israel but also to the heritage that belongs to us and the mission we have as a Jewish people.”
“I believe there are many Helen Thomases out there,” said Rabbi Yisroel Spalter of the Chabad Lubavitch of Weston. He said the experience was transformative for Nesenoff and his story has an intriguing aftermath that is of interest to the Jewish community.