Rabbi Zalman Wolowik had a front-row seat to history this week.
The Orthodox rabbi, who is director of the Chabad of the Five Towns in Cedarhurst, delivered the invocation Monday at the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, an event that has drawn both praise and condemnation.
Wolowik said his longtime friendship with David Friedman, who was appointed last year by Trump as the U.S. ambassador to Israel, was the key to his invitation to the event.
“You have to pinch yourself to see if this is really happening,” Wolowik said Wednesday after returning to his home in Woodmere.
Wolowik was the only rabbi to speak at the ceremony on Monday, which, while a joyous moment for some, was also cloaked in controversy.
Palestinians and their supporters argue that the eastern part of Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state, while Israelis view the entire Holy City as their rightful capital. In December, Trump bucked decades of U.S. diplomacy by declaring Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital and announcing that the embassy would be relocated from Tel Aviv.
The pronouncement set off worldwide protests. On Monday, Israeli forces shot and killed at least 58 Palestinians and wounded more than 1,200 during mass protests along the Gaza border.
But at the embassy opening ceremony, Wolowik said, “The joy, the pride, was electrifying.”
Wolowik, 49, said he chatted briefly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but not with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who were quickly whisked in and out of the high-security event.
A select crowd of about 800 was allowed to attend the dedication, which took place on the grounds outside the embassy building, Wolowik said. Bleachers were set up to accommodate the group for the 90-minute ceremony.
An Israeli woman sang an Israeli peace song, alternating between Hebrew and English.
In his invocation, Wolowik said, “The Jewish people’s attachment to this holy city has never waned or faltered — it is truth.”
He thanked Trump for “standing for this truth” and said he prays other countries will follow the United States’ example in “affirming the Jewish people’s eternal bond with this holy city.”
“It can’t be adequately expressed in words what took place in that room. It was a world celebration, not just a Jewish or Israel celebration,” Wolowik said Wednesday. “It was a celebration of finally somebody recognizing the truth and doing something about it.”
Wolowik, a native of Canada, said he was conscious that he was playing a key role in a historic event.
“I recognize that there are thousands of rabbis in the United States of America . . . by divine providence, I was chosen,” he said. “I was humbled, honored. I tried to represent basically all of the Jewish people of the United States. The responsibility was great, the merit was awesome.”
Wolowik said he met Friedman, also a Five Towns resident, years ago, and that for 20 years they studied the Torah together.
But the pair, whose houses are three blocks apart, have ties that go beyond their shared faith. When Wolowik’s 9-year-old son died unexpectedly a decade ago, Friedman and his wife Tammy were constantly by his side, the rabbi said.
“David did not miss a day of Shiva to come and comfort me,” Wolowik said. “David and Tammy carried us through the most challenging time in our life.”
Wolowik said he accompanied Friedman to Washington, D.C., for Friedman’s confirmation hearings in February 2017 and his swearing in as ambassador a month later.
Friedman, a fervent supporter of Israeli settlements, an opponent of Palestinian statehood and a staunch defender of Israel’s government, had met stiff opposition from many Democratic senators because of some of his inflammatory language, but was approved by the Republican-led Senate.
Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, head of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement on Long Island, said many local rabbis had distanced themselves from Friedman after he became involved in Trump’s campaign for president, wanting to stay out of politics, but Wolowik remained loyal as a friend.
Wolowik said he had told Friedman “that I will be there for him through thick and thin.”