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A U.S. Treasury Official’s Moving Encounter With Atlanta Yeshivah Students

When a group of post-bar mitzvah junior high school students from Chaya Mushka Children’s House Elementary and Middle School in Atlanta were rewarded with a trip to the nations capitol, it had a profound impact on one U.S. Treasury official whom the met and Davened with.

by Moyshe (Mitchell) Silk – Chabad.org

Wednesday, April 18, 2018. I had a most rewarding experience with a group of five junior high school students from Atlanta this morning.

I took up a senior leadership position with the U.S. Department of the Treasury last October. A practical consequence of this rewarding position was that I would have to leave my haven in New York to spend the week in a self-imposed exile in Washington, D.C., every Monday through Thursday (and sometimes Friday as well). So off I went—away from my family and my home, leaving my law practice in Midtown Manhattan, missing both my daily Torah class and praying Minchah in the minyan that I had started a few years ago in the offices of the venerable Allen & Overy law firm in Rockefeller Center—all in the name of public service.

Morning services on Monday mornings are always the hardest. It is a stark reminder of what I am missing. No Gemara shiur (lesson) with the rebbe (teacher) explaining, challenging, revealing a chiddush (novel insight), prodding or just bringing me along in my understanding of the text. No services with my kollel (study group)—a group of exceptional fellows—all of whom are astute, serious, hard-working, very normal and very personable. Young men who have become friends and indeed brothers.

One consolation that I have, among many, is that on Mondays and Thursdays, I pray with Rabbi Levi Shemtov and his minyan. For any withdrawal that I suffer in my self-imposed exile from Brooklyn, the bright side is Rabbi Shemtov and his family–his sons and son-in-law–as minyan regulars. They are good soldiers of the Lubavitcher Rebbe–lamplighters, I think they used to call them in my day. They all take their davening seriously, and put their hearts and souls into it. There is nothing mechanical about the service. It might take a little time to get the well-greased machine moving in the morning, but when the train starts running, there is no question about Who Rabbi Shemtov is talking to, what he is saying and what he means. It is a wholly enjoyable and inspiring davening.

We had a little surprise this last Monday. We were treated to a visit from a group of post-bar mitzvah junior high school students from CMCH (Chaya Mushka Children’s House) Elementary and Middle School in Atlanta. These five young eighth-graders were rewarded with a graduation trip to Washington, D.C., for excellence in studies. Given the numbers of the group, there was no issue with minyan that morning. And, as an added benefit, with not a small degree of pride, Rabbi Levi Druin, who led the group, sent one of his wards to lead the services. And so we were set. Requisite 10. Requisite leader. We were off to the races. The young lad did a commendable job.

After davening, I chatted with Rabbi Druin a bit. He told me about their itinerary, where they had been and what was on the agenda for their remaining two days. Spy Museum, check. Air and Space Museum, check. When I inquired about the White House, Rabbi Druin told me that they were not able to get in for a tour. I naturally felt bad—all the way from Atlanta, a group of fine young boys. Big shud (shame)! It is, though, a busy time of year, and usually folks need to reserve White House tours many weeks in advance.

So, I thought, well, the next best thing to a tour of the White House would be a tour of the historic main Treasury Building, where I work. The Treasury Building is one of the oldest buildings in Washington and abuts (and was once a part of) the White House complex. It was a very busy week for me—World Bank meetings were in session, I was hosting a delegation of the Secretary of Finance and Secretary of Energy of the Republic of Panama for meetings, and I had three speaking engagements. But I felt it was the least I could do.

I instructed Rabbi Druin to get my details from Rabbi Shemtov, and we got to work on clearing the group into the building. Secret Service clearance is no simple matter, and this was the real challenge to the exercise. Clearance usually takes at least 24 hours, and the volume of meetings that Treasury was hosting with Finance ministries from all over the world ancillary to World Bank meetings did not work in our favor. I got the group’s details into the system early enough in the day, and I ran from meeting to meeting. Late in the day, I got word that the group cleared security and were in the system. Good to go. Now all I needed was to make it through my meetings successfully.

We made up to meet at Treasury at 8:30 a.m. I had a narrow window during which I could show the group around a bit. And, with a small degree of human effort and intelligence and the usual dose of Divine intervention, it all worked out. The week had not been an easy one for me. I did not sleep well on Monday night. I had a full day of back-to-back meetings on Monday, including bilateral discussions with a South American government, and was up until 2 a.m. preparing for Tuesday’s meetings. I had a formal speaking engagement on Tuesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and an evening of negotiations and bilateral meetings with a Central American government that went until around 1 a.m. On the designated Wednesday morning of the tour, I had yet another speaking engagement that started at 7 a.m. Boy, was I tired as rushed back to Treasury to meet the boys from Atlanta at 8:15 a.m. While walking back to Treasury at a fast clip, I thought back to an exchange that I had with elderly and respected member of our community. This distinguished gentleman turned to me at one point in the conversation and said, “When my mother, of blessed memory, was exhausted and overwhelmed just before yom tov, she would tell me that she is as tired and worn out as a geflikte chicken—a chicken that had just been plucked.” I now got the picture.

We met at the historic Gallatin Entrance. The boys were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed; they were palpably excited. Albert Gallatin was the longest-serving Secretary of the Treasury (1801-14) and also a distinguished diplomat. He was the fourth Secretary, and served under Presidents Jefferson and Madison. After the boys had their pictures at the Gallatin statue, they proceeded through security. Thank G‑d, the security process went smoothly, and we were all in the Building with minimal effort.

The Treasury Building, a national historic landmark, is truly regal. It was a main seat of government offices when the U.S. Government moved from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., in 1800. The Building is actually comprised of a number of buildings completed in stages with differing architectural styles due to fires and expansion needs. The Building sits at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., just next to the White House.

There is a lot of history in the Building, and we had a short amount of time. Alas, the day is short, and the task is great! I had instructed Rabbi Druin to ensure that the boys had reviewed an online tour of the Building. I knew that our time was going to be limited, and thought that a little preparation would go a long way. The boys seem reasonably well-prepared.

We started in the historic Cash Room, which is the first room in the Building when entering through the Gallatin Entrance. As its name implies, the Cash Room is where, long before wire and electronic transfers, the Treasury transacted all of the U.S. Government’s financial business with financial institutions and the public. The room opened in June 1869 and was the site of President Grant’s Inaugural Reception in 1869.

From there, we visited the Andrew Johnson Suite, where my Undersecretary, David R. Malpass, sits. This suite is where Andrew Johnson sat as president when he succeeded Abraham Lincoln after his assassination in 1865. President Johnson graciously allowed Mary Lincoln to stay in the White House while she mourned and sorted her affairs, and conducted affairs of state as president in this suite. The suite is of high historical significance and has an unfettered view of the White House. A considerable amount of time and effort has gone into the historic restoration of the room so that it matches, as much as possible, its original appearance.

From there we walked down the hall to my office, and then proceeded further to the back of the Building on the same floor to see where Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin sits. It was true Divine providence that we bumped into Secretary Mnuchin’s Chief of Staff Eli Miller while on our way to the Secretary’s office. Eli was in particularly good form, and he took the group in for a visit in his office, quizzed them on a few American history questions and presented them with a gift of $25 each. The hitch with the gift was that the bills were shredded, and the boys could only use the money if they could piece the shredded bills back together! Eli then took the group into the Secretary’s Conference and Diplomatic Reception Room for a picture. Secretary Mnuchin was out at meetings, but the boys did get to meet his executive assistant, Shirley. That is no small feat, as we in the Building all know how important Shirley is!

We also stopped in to see two of my close friends, Sigal Mandelker and Marshall Billingslea. Sigal is Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, and Marshall is the Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing. Both were also busy in meetings, but again, the group was honored to meet their executive assistants.

From there we visited the West Dome of the Building, featuring a triple oculus skylight over an extraordinarily ornate double-spiral staircase, which has benefited from considerable historic renovation. We finished our tour with a little intrigue. I introduced them to my intelligence officer and showed them the location of some of the special rooms where we conduct intelligence briefings.

All in all, it was a really nice time. The boys got to see a slice of American history and spend time in a Building where we are conducting some of the most important work of the country. But, alas, history, shmistory . . . here’s what I see as significant about the boys’ visit. We hosted five 13- and 14-year-old newly bar mitzvah bochurim at Treasury. So fresh were they that a few were still struggling with their tefillin straps. You remember those days, don’t you?

They came across a number of government workers and officials on their visit–ranging from the wonderful men and women of the U.S. Secret Service who keep us safe, to secretaries and maintenance workers all the way up to the Chief of Staff and Assistant Secretaries. The boys spoke with exceptional derech eretz (respect) and intelligence with each and every person they met. Within the Treasury compound, they walked with their tzitzit out and with yarmulkes and peyos, signs of proud Jews. O.K., they were on vacation and not in official uniform with suits, white shirts and black hats. However, there was not a head that did not turn when they walked by with me, and we are talking a number of heads of a number of not junior staff and officials. And with each turn of the head came a look of immense admiration. Exemplary young ambassadors indeed.

And more than that was the content and delivery of every word that came out of their mouths. Whether it was responding to questions about their dates of birth from the Secret Service when registering, to saying “thank you” to the Secret Service guards when passing through security screening, to saying “good morning” to Shirley(!) or answering Mr. Miller’s questions about American history. A Kiddush Hashem with such simplicity and innocence does not get much better. Truth be told, I might have even shed a tear of pride. But then again, it is allergy season in Washington, D.C., and so Sen. Ed Muskie reminded me when I was an even younger lawyer than I am today when I worked with him, tears have not always gone over well in the U.S. political scene!

Thanks for making my day, boys—indeed, my week!

With that, I say, “G‑d bless the good people of Atlanta, Georgia!” Rabbi Druin, you and your school’s administration are doing something right.

A version of this article first appeared in Hamodia.

Moyshe Silk is Deputy Assistant Secretary of the United States Department of the Treasury and in charge of the Office of Investment, Energy and Infrastructure. He was formerly a senior partner of the global law practice of Allen & Overy. He is completing translations of the Kedushas Levi and Ma’amer Mordechai (Nadvorna).

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