The Rabbi who interviewed Helen Thomas

It may have been divine providence or it may have been just blind luck, but either way, Rabbi David Nesenoff’s visit to the White House in May 2010 was a transformative event — in his life and in that of one of the world’s most renowned journalists.

Nesenoff told his story to two local audiences last week, appearing Feb. 4 at Chabad of UCLA and Feb. 5 at Chabad of Downtown L.A. At 52, Nesenoff is a bundle of energy. He says he never drinks coffee and doesn’t sleep much, which makes his near-daily speaking tour particularly notable. He wears trendy glasses and, except for a goatee, is clean-shaven — not exactly the look of your average Conservative-turned-Chabad rabbi.

Nesenoff’s story begins with him sitting in his Long Island home one day in May 2010, deciding what the next step in his life would be. He had been a Conservative rabbi at a few congregations for 20 years.

“I was trying to figure out what my major was,” Nesenoff told the audience with a chuckle. “I wanted to do something for my Israel.”

Nesenoff, who also is a film producer, decided that he would create video snippets of dozens of people praising different aspects of Israeli society — the falafel, Masada, the Kotel. Perhaps, Nesenoff thought, one of his videos would go viral and people would see Israel as being more than a country embroiled in perpetual conflict.

By sheer coincidence, or, as Nesenoff puts it, “Hashgacha Pratis” — divine providence — his 16-year-old son, Adam, had just received three press passes to attend the Jewish heritage celebration at the White House on May 27. His son wanted to stream the Chanukah lighting on the White House lawn for his Web site. For the rabbi, this was a perfect chance to ask people on camera, “Any comments on Israel?”

Nesenoff, his son and his son’s friend drove overnight to Washington, D.C., and went to the White House several hours before the event. Nesenoff bumped into Vice President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton. When he saw the rabbi who makes sure that the White House kitchen is kosher for Jewish events, he asked the rabbi on camera whether he had kashered the spoons and forks for that afternoon’s event. The rabbi’s concise response — a quiet, “yes.”

Then, walking across the front lawn of the White House, he saw then-89-year-old journalist Helen Thomas, who had been reporting for nearly 70 years and covered every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. She always ended presidential press conferences with a signature, “Thank you, Mr. President.”

Armed with only a tiny flip-camera, Nesenoff figured that some positive comments on Israel from a famous journalist could boost his project. He asked Thomas if he and his son — as amateur journalists — could ask her any questions. She agreed.

“Any advice for these young people over here for starting out in the press corps?” Nesenoff asked Thomas.

“You’ll never be unhappy,” she responded. “You’ll always keep people informed.”

Then Nesenoff asked Thomas the question he hoped would help his pro-Israel videos go viral.

“Any comments on Israel?”

The response put Nesenoff on the map, but in a way that he could not have envisioned.

“Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” Thomas said.

“Oooooooh,” Nesenoff said. “So where should they go?”

“They could go home,” Thomas responded. “Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else.”

Nesenoff had the video that would put him on CNN, Fox News and the Chabad speaking circuit — but he didn’t know it yet. In fact, he didn’t upload the video to YouTube for an entire week, because the only person in his house who knew how to do that, his son, was busy with final exams.

Soon after came the Gaza flotilla incident. On May 31, boats bound from Turkey to the Gaza Strip ignored Israeli calls to turn around due to its naval blockade of the coastal strip. Israeli soldiers boarded the ships and nine people were killed in clashes during the raid. The next day, Thomas asked then-White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs why the Obama administration hadn’t condemned what she called a “deliberate massacre.”

Nesenoff’s son uploaded the video two days later, on a Thursday night, and 48 hours after that — after Shabbat — Nesenoff checked YouTube to see if the video had gained any momentum. It had more than 700,000 views.

“That’s just from the people that didn’t observe Shabbos,” Nesenoff joked.

By Monday, the video had more than 1 million views, major media outlets were asking for interviews, and Nesenoff had received thousands of pieces of hate mail. He didn’t know what to do next: Should he allow the media to interview him? What would he say? He needed some advice.

Some came during a phone call that he received from Ari Fleischer, who had been press secretary for President George W. Bush.

“You need to have a message,” Nesenoff remembers Fleischer telling him. “If you don’t have a message, they [the media] are going to have a message.”

Nesenoff called Elie Wiesel for help. Wiesel recommended that Nesenoff find out what the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, would have said. After meeting with a Chabad rabbi, Nesenoff had formulated his message. 

“If your child goes away for four years, is he still your child?” Nesenoff asked the audience at the event. “Of course. If, God forbid, you don’t see your child for 50 years, is it still your child? Yes, of course.

“We are the children of Israel. And sometimes we are away for 50 years in the United States. Sometimes we are away for 2,000 years in galut [the Diaspora]. And sometimes we are away for four years in Auschwitz.

“The children of Israel and the land of Israel,” Nesenoff said, clasping his hands together, “are one, God-given.”

After the media picked up Nesenoff’s video, Thomas’s 67-year career imploded within days. Her speaking agency dropped her. Her co-author Craig Crawford announced that he would not work with her on future projects. A high school in Maryland canceled her planned commencement address. And the White House Correspondents’ Association called her remarks “indefensible.” On June 7, Thomas resigned, effectively ending the career of a Washington legend.

Nesenoff believes there’s a lesson to be learned from this.

“You can no longer run around saying, ‘I’m just anti-Israel, I’m not anti-Semitic,’ ” he said. “If someone’s anti-Israel, we’d better take a look, because perhaps they are using this as a platform for their anti-Semitism. And that’s what happened with Helen Thomas.”