Shabbos on Trial

david schoen shabbos
Attorney David Schoen puts his hand on his head as he takes a drink of water, as he speaks during Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, February 9. (Congress.gov via Getty Images)

David Schoen may have come to the Capitol to argue on the former President’s behalf, but much of the Orthodox (and non-Orthodox) world was preoccupied with questions regarding his putting his hand on his head while reciting a brachah over a bottle of water, and, most prominently, his initial request of the Senate that the trial be halted on Saturday because of his Sabbath observance, and ultimately, the fact that he didn’t attend the final day of the trial because it was Shabbos.

When personalities like Mr. Trump’s attorney make a public statement with their commitment to fundamental commandments like Shabbos, the news may buzz throughout the world and specifically the Jewish community for a bit, but it’s the baal teshuvah movement that may ultimately get an injection of energy and motivation.

A Bottle Cap and a Kippah

Rabbi Y. chuckles as he rehashes the incident. As a teacher at an Israel-based kiruv institution, he says Mr. Schoen made waves in his circles. “At first the boys I work with were confused why he wasn’t wearing his yarmulke to begin with. Some thought he was trying to be less conspicuous and perhaps didn’t want to inspire any anti-Semitic comments or link religious Jews with Trump during a time when there is more negativity being directed at the former President,” he speculates.

But then the questions started emerging about his brachah. “People who are more sophisticated with halachah wanted to know, why is he putting his hand on his head when he drinks? It says in halachah to take your sleeve and put it on your head, because your hand is a part of you, not valid as a separate covering. But then we realized he was using his water bottle cap, concealed in his hand, as a chatzitzah. It was good hock. It gave these guys what to think about and someone prominent to look up to, particularly when he showed up with his yarmulke the next day.

One of the students said to me, “He probably figured it doesn’t make sense to come without it; the lack of yarmulke caused more hype than if he had just worn it in the first place!” That must have been his line of thinking, because he and his staffer came wearing head coverings, and that really impressed people. I think this kind of public display makes some of our boys who are hesitant or embarrassed to put on a kippah that much more confident.”

Ilana, a wife, mother and architect in her 40s, describes how little (or big) displays of Jewishness in any shape or form really had an impact on her when she began her baal teshuvah process during college. “Non-religious Jews need to see and hear that we exist,” she says. “Even if it’s just via tiny symbols that are actually quite devoid of religious symbolism once you come to learn more about it.”

She references the Magen David which she once saw a popular sports player wearing around his neck. “I wasn’t religious at the time and I remember just feeling deeply excited that there was another Jew out there, one that wasn’t shy to say … ‘I am Jewish.’”

Another celebrity figure who made a widely publicized trip to Israel similarly motivated her. “It’s becoming less and less acceptable to do so, and young Jewish students on campus are less and less comfortable even expressing a connection to the Jewish homeland. They hardly have a chance to explore the deeper history and meaning behind it because Israel is so vilified. Anything any Jew can do to create some kind of bridge to Jewishness is helpful,” she adds.

Turning to another story that really intrigued her, she describes working on a large building design with a team of architects shortly after graduating. “We walked into a meeting with the clients, and one of the men behind the project was an ‘ultra-Orthodox’ Jew. He was sitting there in his full garb, a three-piece suit with a long jacket over it, completely comfortable standing out so oddly with his beard and hat, while the rest of us were very well-groomed and corporate, the men with a short shave and the women with tight buns (this was 20 years ago, back when companies were more formal). He seemed so confident and unflappable. I was just really impressed.”

She finishes with a passionate thought. “Non-religious Jews need to know who we are. The world does not just revolve around secular society. When they see stories like these, any story of Jewishness in any way, it removes just one more layer of hesitation and adds one more layer of inspiration.”

Guard the Sabbath

For David Schoen, it wasn’t all just kippos and bottle caps. Then came the shemiras Shabbos issue. In a letter to the Senate, Mr. Schoen asked that the trial be suspended if it was not completed by sundown on Friday.

“I apologize for the inconvenience my request that impeachment proceedings not be conducted during the Jewish Sabbath undoubtedly will cause other people involved in the proceedings,” he wrote. “The practices and prohibitions are mandatory for me, however; so, respectfully, I have no choice but to make this request.”

The House Majority and Minority Leaders received the letter and responded that accommodations would be made. However, as the trial began to unfold, Mr. Schoen retracted his appeal.

“Based on adjustments that have been made on the President’s defense team, I am writing today to withdraw my request so that the proceedings can go forward as originally contemplated before I made my request,” he wrote in a new letter.

He went further to thank the Majority Leader. “I am advised that your response to my letter was to graciously accommodate my Sabbath observance and to set a schedule for the upcoming impeachment trial that meant suspending the trial for the Jewish Sabbath. This meant causing you to lose Friday evening and all day Saturday that you previously intended to have for the trial. I very much appreciated your decision.”

While unneeded in the end, the Senate’s willingness to halt something as dramatic as an impeachment for the Shabbos observance of one Jew is astonishing.

“Look how far we’ve come,” says Rabbi K., a Brooklyn-based mechanech, as he notes the many Jews who had to suffer the uncertainty of losing their jobs each week just a century ago because keeping Shabbos was incompatible with the work week. “Think of the Shomer Shabbos shul in Boro Park. How did it start? Because a large shul in town back then davened at 7:00 because people hurried off to work after the davening on Shabbos morning. The founders of Shomer Shabbos broke off to start their own place as the minority who were insistent on keeping Shabbos. And now look where we are; we can actively keep Shabbos even in high positions. And the greatest lesson from David Schoen’s story is, he got away with it! It didn’t hurt him. They were even going to accommodate him. In general, people respect those who have convictions and who stand up for their values. There are countless unsung heroes who walk away from deals or who forfeit positions because of shemiras Shabbos who never make it into the press.

“I hope the publicity around Mr. Schoen will inspire people who are considering starting to observe Shabbos.”

***

‘Why don’t you come with us?’

Rabbi Reuven Green, administrator of the Kollel Institute of Greater Detroit, shares his own story of inspiration while journeying toward religion.

“I was a young attorney in England back in 1989, and I worked for a firm that was predominantly Jewish but non-religious,” he says. “I was an employee and by no means observant myself. Part of my training involved doing a stint in different departments, and at this time, I was covering Real Estate and was being mentored by Ramesh Vala, an immigrant from India who later received an OBE from the Queen.” (The Order of the British Empire is a British order of chivalry, rewarding contributions to the arts and sciences.)

He describes one of the cases they were working on which involved Wembley Stadium, the largest in the U.K. “Our client, who also happened to be of Indian descent, was willing to inject a lot of capital in Wembley because its owners were tight on cash and desperately needed our client as an investor,” he says.

It seems the owners of Wembley were under a lot of pressure to collect funds. And fast. “Their bank was expecting some large payments from them within the week, and they were looking at some fines as well to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds,” Rabbi Green explains. “And who owned Wembley stadium? Two religious Jews. A Litvak and a Chassid.”

As the negotiations started, Rabbi Green describes an amusing scene in what sounds like the beginning of a joke. The room was packed with lawyers, on one side the Indian client with his Indian lawyer, Ramesh Vala, surrounded by a crowd of secular Jewish lawyers who were part of the team, and on the other side a Chassid, a Litvak and a crowd of their Orthodox Jewish lawyers. And so the work began.

“Their attorneys were all religious Jews,” says Rabbi Green. “On that side of the room, a bunch of shomer Shabbos, and on our side, a bunch of secular Jews and two Indians. We had been working on this deal for two or three weeks, and it was getting more intense. I remember it was winter, December. We worked through Wednesday and Thursday, pulling all-nighters. Then came Friday. And the other side said this meeting would end by 11. Comes 11, the deal wasn’t closing. Twelve, nothing doing. I knew these guys were going to settle. They needed the money and they needed to wrap up fast, because their fees and interest payments were all being called in the very next day. It comes 1:30, and they say, ‘We’re going to have to end in a half hour and resume on Sunday.’ I thought to myself, why on earth would they do that?! It was clear we weren’t near done. They were going to lose a lot of money, and the whole point of this deal was to avoid that outcome. My mentor, Ramesh Vala, suggested we resume the next day, but they explained that was impossible: It was the Jewish Sabbath.”

Rabbi Green describes himself as “young and naïve” at the time, which is probably what prompted him to suggest, “We have enough for a minyan, why don’t we pray here?”

He says one of his superiors gave him a whack in the ribs that he can still feel today.

“They smiled at me, and one of the Orthodox Jews on the other side of the table says, ‘Why don’t you come with us?’ I got a little hot under the collar. I may have been interested, but I didn’t want that kind of pressure. And besides, my boss muttered, ‘Shut up, Green,’ so I just sat back and shut up. The other side did get up and leave the room at 2:00 with the deal unresolved. Shabbos was at 3:45, and they did pay the bank’s steep fines and fees. Our side of the table was very surprised. In this field, money is king, and they were willing to forgo all that, pay all that expense, so they could get to their minyan for Shabbos. I was struck by it. On Sunday our talks resumed and the deal went through.”

With that experience percolating in his mind, it didn’t take very long for him to take action. “I called the Chassid,” Rabbi Green says. “I told him, ‘You might remember me. Can I come meet with you on a personal matter?’ He made time for me, I went down to his place, we shmoozed, and I was impressed.”

That experience pushed him to seek out a Rabbi whom he had known from his high school years, a Rabbi Sliw, who, when the young attorney knocked on his door, opened it with composure and said, “I had been wondering when you might come around,” as if nearly five years had not passed since he had seen his former student.

Rabbi Green’s colleagues didn’t react too well to his discovery of religion. “Only Mr. Vala took kindly to it!” he says with surprise. The other lawyers, just about all of whom were Jewish, gave him strange looks when one day he came to work wearing a kippah, so much so that he felt compelled to excuse it at first. “My grandfather offered us all a cash gift if we wear it,” he explained. But over time, he gained confidence in his attire and his choice. “I noticed the other partners putting in crazy hours; many of them were working through divorces, and all of that caught my attention and made me question whether I wanted that life. And the rest, as they say, is history.”

And this particular bit of history commences with some ordinary Jews keeping their weekly obligation, unaware that their behavior is having a deep impact on another Jewish soul on the other side of the table.