Senator Hatch’s Mezuzah // My “one degree of separation” from Senator Hatch

Senator Hatch showing his mezuzah to the son of a Chabad shliach

The recent passing of Utah Senator Orrin Hatch conjured the image of my “one degree of separation” from Mr. Hatch. That would be my and his late friend Baruch Korff, who was perhaps best known as “Nixon’s rabbi.”

A scion of the Zhviller dynasty, five-year-old Baruch witnessed his mother’s murder during a pogrom in the Ukrainian city Novohrad-Volynsky, and he channeled that trauma into a life of Jewish activism. After studying in European yeshivos, he emigrated to the US and attended Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan, where he received semichah.

During World War II, Rabbi Korff petitioned dignitaries, lawmakers and Supreme Court justices on behalf of Europe’s Jews. Once, he, Rav Avrohom Kalmonowitz and Rav Aharon Kotler, zt”l, met with then-Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., who spearheaded what became the War Refugee Board.

He worked closely, too, with the Lechi group (the “Stern Gang”), and, after the war, he continued his efforts on behalf of fellow Jews seeking refuge in Eretz Yisrael and the US.

Along the way, he gained the ear and confidence of, among others, then-House Speaker John McCormack and Senator Hatch, for both of whom he ghostwrote speeches.

And, famously, he developed a strong relationship with President Richard Nixon, who actually referred to him as “my rabbi.” It is widely believed that Rabbi Korff influenced Nixon’s strong support for Israel and his efforts to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate.

When the Watergate scandal broke in 1973, Rabbi Korff staunchly defended Nixon, founding the National Citizens Committee for Fairness for the Presidency. He admitted that Nixon had “misused his power,” but he felt that the president deserved to remain in office.

It was when my family lived in Providence, where Rabbi Korff had chosen to retire, that I came to know him. He asked me to edit some of his writings, and he befriended the Shafran clan.

He told me of his warm rapport with Senator Hatch, and of his privilege to have written speeches for the celebrated legislator, who would become the longest-serving Republican in the history of the Senate.

Whether Mr. Hatch’s often-demonstrated affection for Jews and Israel owed anything to Rabbi Korff’s influence, or whether a pre-existent affection led him to our mutual friend can’t be known.

But the affection is beyond doubt. Although a devout Mormon, Mr. Hatch declared himself a lifelong friend of Jews and Israel. In 2018, after former President Trump announced the moving of the US Embassy in Israel to Yerushalayim, Senator Hatch told the Senate, “It is difficult for me to express the profound reverence I have for the Jewish people.” He then referred to the decorative “mezuzah” he wore around his neck, something he said he has done “every day for… more than four decades.”

“The mezuzah,” he said, “reminds me of the affinity that I, as a member of the Mormon faith, hold for the Jewish people and their history.” And he drew a link between the founding of Israel and the settlement of Utah by Mormons in the 19th century, both the result of “religious minorities seeking refuge from persecution.”

Moreover, while in office, Senator Hatch traveled to Israel many times and took part in numerous Shabbos seudos. He often referred to the Israel-US bond as “unbreakable.”

Over his seven Senate terms, Mr. Hatch played a role in crafting conservative legislation and securing the appointment of conservative Supreme Court justices.

I last saw our mutual friend Rabbi Korff in the summer of 1995, a year after my family had moved to New York. He was suffering from the last stages of pancreatic cancer, so I traveled back to Providence to visit him.

Welcomed into Rabbi Korff’s house by one of his relatives, I found him lying in a bed holding a morphine pump. He used it every so often, but he was still engaged with the handful of us who were present. In a particularly moving moment, he asked us to sing Adon Olam, and we readily obliged.

Pondering Mr. Hatch’s death and the many obituaries that mentioned the “mezuzah” he wore, I wondered where he may have gotten it.

I can’t say I know for certain, but I have a hunch.

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