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Pol Position

How the heir to an Orthodox rabbinical dynasty landed in Pennsylvania’s Senate race

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Nachama Soloveichik, an heir to America’s leading Orthodox rabbinic dynasty, is caught between two calendars that rule her life. According to the Jewish calendar, Tuesday will mark the beginning of Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. But by Pennsylvania’s election calendar, Tuesday is primary night—the beginning of the six-month countdown to November’s midterm elections, when Soloveichik’s boss, the conservative Catholic politician Pat Toomey, hopes to win the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by Arlen Specter, the Jewish former Republican who is now running as a Democrat in one of the country’s most closely watched races.

As Toomey’s press secretary, Soloveichik, who is 29, wants to be at the party the campaign has booked at a hotel in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, but as an observant Jew, she’s not sure how she’ll get back to her home in Allentown, nine miles west, without violating the restrictions on driving or working on the holiday. “If I were in Manhattan and had to walk from Washington Heights to Wall Street, I could do it, but the problem is that here there aren’t sidewalks,” Soloveichik told me, when we met last week at a Starbucks near Toomey’s campaign headquarters. “But I don’t want to be stranded in my apartment wondering who won the Democratic primary.”

Soloveichik is hardly the first, or the most prominent, Orthodox Jew to get into American retail politics. But she has made her career working outside of traditional Jewish circles, first in Rhode Island and now in Pennsylvania. She also carries the weight of membership in one of the most prominent of the rabbinic families that transplanted themselves from Eastern Europe to the United States in the early part of the last century. Her great-uncle, Joseph Soloveitchik, who taught at Yeshiva University (and spelled his name with a “T”), is considered the founder of Modern Orthodoxy and, along with her grandfather, the rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, was responsible for educating a large proportion of today’s American Orthodox rabbis. Her father, Eliyahu, is also a well-known rabbi, and her older brother, Meir, has also joined the family business, as an associate rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

The latest Soloveichik to make a mark on American life is currently ensconced at Toomey campaign headquarters, which take up the corner of a low-slung office building in Allentown that used to house a pediatrician’s office. Her desk is cluttered with three monitors: a desktop PC, a Mac, and a Dell laptop that’s prone to breaking down. She says that, as a woman, she never considered it an option to become a rabbi. (Her mother, Esther, is a technology consultant.) “I never felt like I wanted to be a rabbi, but couldn’t,” she told me. “But I always had high expectations for myself.” Instead of parsing Talmud, she tracks polls—and has the security of knowing that even on Saturdays, when her BlackBerry stays off, she can always sneak out and check the latest numbers in the Allentown Morning Call.

Soloveichik’s personal style owes more to her youth at Hanna Sacks Bais Yaakov in Chicago than to the stars of her political cohort, like Alexandra Kerry or Meghan McCain. She wears long skirts—the day we met, it was a flowing peasant one with a graphic floral design, paired with gray Ugg boots and a short-sleeved shirt under a loose cardigan. She kept her shoulder-length auburn curls held back with a black plastic headband. The most troublesome inconvenience of being religious on a campaign, she explained, is having to carry kosher food with her and not being able to order at restaurants. At a recent staff barbeque, someone grilled a bacon cheeseburger and dubbed it “the Nachama burger.” “I was like, ‘Thanks, guys!’ and had some more fruit,” Soloveichik said, rolling her bright blue eyes. Her family, she said, is supportive of her work—and while they might like to see her settle down, she’s not eager to give up the Soloveichik name. “I’m pretty independent,” she told me. “And I could never not take a job because I was afraid I wouldn’t get married—I’d never forgive myself.”

Her diet and dress aside, Soloveichik is, in most ways, an exemplar of today’s rising young political operative: She gobbles up every item of Washington gossip that Politico publishes, delights in writing vicious press releases attacking opposing campaigns, and reads tracking polls obsessively. She likes to write her press statements with the television on for white noise—preferably to episodes of Gossip Girl or, failing that, the ABC Family Channel, rather than C-Span. “I’m 29 going on 15,” she said, with a laughing shrug. She is eager to fight a general election campaign against an incumbent, something many political consultants shy away from because it’s harder—and, she said, it hardly bothers her that Specter is Jewish. “In 2000, people were like, ‘You’re not supporting Joe Lieberman?’ and I said I didn’t see why I would,” said Soloveichik. “It’s not like they’re writing the Bible in Congress.”

As a yeshiva girl in Chicago, Soloveichik, who is the second-eldest of seven siblings, avoided politics; it was, she said, something her brothers were into. She applied to Northwestern for their undergraduate journalism program but wound up heading instead to Stern, Yeshiva’s women’s college, where she felt marked by her last name. “I really didn’t realize there were people who knew more about my family than I do until I got to New York,” Soloveichik said. Aaron Soloveichik was known, in his day, as an outspoken opponent of the death penalty and of the Vietnam War—he called it “organized murder” and advised his students to claim conscientious objector status—but his granddaughter chose to carve out an identity for herself as a vocal proponent of conservative political positions. She read up on the opinions of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and spent evenings writing letters to the Chicago Tribune decrying partial-birth abortions and to the New York Times about Al Gore’s campaign financing. Her hard-right views set her apart from her classmates, one of whom labeled her “Jerry Falwell in a skirt,” Soloveichik told me, adding that she saw it as a badge of honor. “She had an ironhard determination to be her own person,” said Marc Stern, a student of Joseph Soloveitchik’s who taught Soloveichik in an undergraduate constitutional law class and later hired her as an assistant at the American Jewish Congress after she finished a master’s at the University of Chicago, in 2004.

Soloveichik’s first campaign was a 2006 Senate primary in Rhode Island, where she signed on with a Republican candidate, Stephen Laffey, who was hoping to dislodge Lincoln Chafee, an incumbent moderate Republican. “I interviewed her, and after we’d gotten into the Orthodox stuff and her family history, I said to her that all the people on the campaign at that point were men, they tended toward being young and single, and asked if that would be a problem,” said Jon Lerner, the Republican political consultant who hired her at the Laffey campaign. “Her answer was, ‘You know, it would not be any problem, and in fact, they should be afraid of me’—which really came to capture her personality.” Laffey failed, but Lerner sent Soloveichik to Washington to work for Toomey, who had taken over the Club for Growth, a powerful anti-tax lobby, in the wake of his failed attempt to unseat Specter in 2004. Last April, Toomey announced that he was going to make a second run at Specter’s seat; a week later, Specter made the surprise announcement that he was defecting to the Democratic Party. “When Specter switched, it was crazy,” Soloveichik said. “I said to Pat, ‘I want to come with you’—I really wanted to work on another campaign, and there just aren’t a lot of candidates I believe in. I’m pretty picky.”

As a religious Catholic, Toomey’s views overlap with Soloveichik’s own uncompromising positions on issues like abortion (pro-life) and school funding (for public funding of parochial schools). And the Toomey campaign is fairly observant, across the board—Soloveichik said the campaign manager, Mark Harris, goes to Mass more regularly than she goes to synagogue. She is comfortable working with religious Christian Republicans and in many ways has more in common with them than with Jewish Democrats—a group that includes her boyfriend, David, who she said is an ardent Obama fan—though her positions might have put her at odds with her elders. “I have too much respect to hypothesize what her great-uncle might have made of his great-niece working for an arch-conservative,” Stern told me. But, he noted, the Soloveichik legacy also includes an imperative for religious Jews to work in the secular realm, toward the betterment of the world. If Orthodox Jews are drifting rightward, Soloveichik may come to represent not just the legacy of the past, but the face of the future.

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“The founder of Modern Orthodoxy”? Wasn’t that Rav Hirsch? Wonderful article, though.

dman says:

Robert,
Perhaps, “The foremost thinker in American Modern Orthodoxy in the second half of the 20th Century.”

That would be a much more accurate statement. It just seems like a odd article in which to have such an egregious flub.

Eric says:

Robert, that’s not a flub. Rav Hirsch never used the term “Modern Orthodox”, instead calling his movement “Torah im derech eretz” (Torah with involvement in the world). His movement undoubtedly shares some aspects with the Modern Orthodox, but it is somewhere between a judgment call and an inaccuracy to say they are the same movement.

By the same token, then, the Rav never used the term ‘Modern Orthodox’ either, at least not prefixing it with the phrase “so-called”. For instance, in Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff’s second volume of ‘The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’, he is recorded as saying, “The so-called modern Orthodox Jews in America are almost identical with the upper class.”

The Rav’s approach is more accurately termed Torah Umadda, particularly as articulated by YU notables Bernard Revel and Dr. Rabbi Samuel Belkin. It’s true that Torah Umaddah diverges somewhat from Rav Hirsch’s philosophy, in that it seeks a more intimate synthesis of religious and secular learning that Hirsch would have approved of, but it’s still a stream within modern orthdoxy.

don-eduardo says:

How perfect. Right-wing, narrow-minded Republican candidates aided in their paradoxical quest for public office (they believe in less government yet cannot control the urge to run for office) by an insular, narrow-minded frummy. How sad that this seemingly intelligent young woman remains clueless to the fact that both her beloved Republican candidates and her Orthodox male compatriots believe ultimately her proper place in the world is… barefoot and pregnant.

I’ve just re-read the, and I can’t find any statement that would legitimate your assertion that Ms. Soloveitchiks is “insular” and “narrow-minded”. Is it because she’s “pro-life”? How is being “pro-life” any less “narrow” than being “pro-choice”? Does being “pro-choice” somehow involve a greater breadth of consciousness? It’s also ignorant to assume that Ms Soloveichik’s views on abortion are typical of modern Orthodoxy; even a quick Google search which I assume is well within your capacity would reveal a tremendous amount of debate on the subject, halakhic and otherwise.

You really need to look up the word “paradox” if you think that anti-big-government campaigners running for office is a paradox. By the same token you would have to say that anyone opposed to the death penalty would be guilty of the same “paradox” by running for office in Texas.

Daniel says:

Robert: Here is exactly how “pro-life” is more narrow than “pro-choice”.

“Pro-life” is about taking one’s own point of view and imposing it on everyone else by way of the government. “Pro-choice” is about allowing people to follow thier own values and conscience on an extremely personal decision. There are many “pro-choice” people who would not choose abortion for themselves, but do not feel it proper to place that value decision on others.

Unfortunately many Orthodox have traded in expediency and blind right-wing support on Israel while abandoning the very freedoms in America that allowed the Jewish community to prosper and grow as is has (and, yes, still is, even outside the Orthodox world). Jewish law, from the Torah through luminaries like Rashi and Maimonides would not endorse either the hard “pro-life” line of the fetus is more valuable than the mother nor the full “pro-choice” line of abortion on demand, but takes a more middle of the road veiw that suggest we are most free to live according to Jewish law on this question by aligning with “pro-choice”, as the pro-life view would demand things of a woman that goes far beyond Jewish law.

The shame is, that many Orthodox, like the subject of the story, are so busy working on conservative campaigns such as Toomey’s that they’ve either lost sight of the liberal freedoms that Jews enjoy in America or are simply scared by those freedoms and don’t like that the freedom has allowed alternative interpretations of Judaism to flourish.

eli says:

Daniel, you unfortunately do not understand that Orthodoxy means following of Halacha. Halacha are the rules that an Orthodox Jew believes are an appropriate guideline for Jews to live by, and contain the 5 precepts of Noach which are apporpriate for non-Jews, including nonkilling/pro-life. Halacha does not approve of abortion or “pro-choice” except in possible extremes where the life of the mother is at risk, and even that must be evaluated.

You say “the pro-life view would demand things of a woman that goes far beyond Jewish law” but do not back this up with any factual cases. Actually, Orthodox Jewish Halacha is “pro-life.”

Daniel, you’re absolutely right in your distinction between “pro-life” and “pro-choice” as it pertains to actual policy or legislation, and for exactly the reason you state – that the former enables personal choice and the latter obviously prohibits it. However, what I meant was that as an article of political or religious faith, being “pro-choice” is no more expansive or “broad” than being “pro-life”, both beliefs being equally as likely to be the product of lazy assumptions or received opinion. Parenthetically, it’s a little tiresome having to put the quotation marks around each term, but they’re deliberately invidious, each one suggesting that its opposite is “anti-life” or “anti-choice”.
I think you’re also right, or at least more right than wrong, which is sometimes as much as you can hope for, on the Jewish-philosophical (hashkafic) shakiness of the ground on which the hard-line anti-abortion opinion stands. It’s true that abortion is inherently in violation of the positive mitzvah to have children, the “p’ru v’ru” injunction in I Bereishit, and the pronatalist culture of Judaism generally, but so is not having any children at all. And although not having children (or at least, choosing to not have children) is certainly disapproved of, it isn’t treated with the kind of hostility that’s often directed towards abortion. Catholic theology has had a rationale for its anti-abortion stance ever since Tertullian, equating it with homicide, but Judaism has never accepted the Church Father’s perspective, and rather than designating the foetus as a living human being with a God-given soul, the Talmud describes it as “ubbar yerekh immo”, or part of the mother. Rambam in Hilchot Rozeach states “Therefore the Sages ruled [in Mishnah Ohalot, I think] that when a woman has difficulty giving birth, one dismembers the foetus in her womg – either with drugs or by surgery – because it is like a pursuer seeking to kiill her. Once its head has emerged it may not be touched, for we may not set aside one life for another; this is the natural course of the world.” So although this doesn’t account for all instances of abortion, we can still see that there is a considerable moral distinction between taking the life of the foetus and that of a post-natal human being. In fact, one of the strongest statements from Jewish sources that I can find, from R. Isaac Untermann, describes abortion as “akin to murder”, and not “equivalent to…” so the distinction is preserved even in a particularly robust opposition.

I’m not suggesting that it’s as cut-and-dried as all that, and it’s not really an argument that can be resolved or even usefully had in the comments section of an article that isn’t even about abortion.

I’m not familiar with Toomey’s politics – I come from Ireland and live in Australia – and he could be, for all I know, as rancid as they come. But the idea that Orthodox Jews “blindly” support Israel is, frankly, a big fat canard. You really think there are no divergences of opinion in the Orthodox world? That they don’t take vastly differing positions and fight ceaselessly over their differences? Have you ever met any Orthodox Jews? It’s incredibly wearying to read a comment like yours, which is another formulation of the “nobody criticizes Israel” cant, which grows increasingly absurd with every repetition. EVERYBODY criticizes Israel. And EVERYBODY prefaces their criticism with “nobody ever criticizes Israel”. Perhaps not everybody criticizes it for the same reasons, or with as much venom and ignorance as some, but I don’t know one person in Israel or anywhere else who doesn’t have some very strong and oft-voiced criticisms of the Jewish state. So by all means, criticize, but liberate yourself of the gratifying delusion that yours is the sole still voice of reason and that everyone else in the world is some kind of right-wing fanatic.
This is already too long, so that’ll do. Thanks for keeping things civil.

Daniel says:

Actually I have a solid understanding of Halacha, and am friends with Orthodox Rabbis who are firmly in the pro-choice camp. And while I erred in saying that Orthodox Judaism blindly support Israel, most Jews support Israel, and few do it blindly. I should say instead that the Orthodox mainstream tends to support right leaning Israeli politics. The criticisms of Israel I hear coming from the Orthodox movements and mainstream leaders are often tepid at best, and tend to be far stronger when Israel shifts to the left.

Shmuel says:

Her other grandfather was R Warshavchik also a highly regarded (ultra)Orthodox rabbinical figure

Joseph says:

Robert:

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch was the antithesis of Modern Orthodoxy.

Joseph, the antithesis of Modern Orthodoxy would be the Hungarian rabbis who forbade Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer to from a new modern rabbinical seminary incorporating secular studies. These Hungarian rabbis said something like, “It’s okay to have secular studies if the government forces you, but you cannot go out and say l’hatkhila, ‘Go and sin’.”

The truth is that Rabbi Hirsch said explicitly that reverence for the G-d who created nature and scientific law, and reverence for the G-d who created the Torah that tells us how to live in this world of nature and scientific law, can only give us reverence for the nature and scientific law which G-d created. According to Rabbi Hirsch, the mitzvah to be “fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” means we have an imperative to build civilization and engage in human endeavor and creativity. In some of his essays, he even took what Pirqei Avot says about learning Torah, and he applied its imperatives to secular learning as well; see “A Peculiar Point in Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Essays on Education”, by Elliot Resnick.

According to Rav Hirsch, we must study secular studies in order to understand the world which G-d has placed us in and the laws of nature which He created, so that we can fulfill His command to fill the earth and build civilization. According to Rav Hirsch, like RambaM, to study science and history is to study G-dliness, for science and history help us understand how to live our own lives. (According to Dayan Isidore Grunfeld, Rav Hirsch believed a Jew has an obligation to study the history of the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Canaanites, Persians, Greeks, and Romans in order that he can understand the Tanakh and Jewish history.) So pray tell, just how is Rav Hirsch the antithesis of Modern Orthodoxy?

As a matter of fact, I was a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Theological College, a talmid of Rav Aharon and a vociferous objector to Viet Nam. The day after Ken State, I appeared in the Beis Medrash with a black arm band on and the mashgiach threw me out of the beis medrash yelling “bechukosehem lo teoleichu”. When Rav Aharon got wind of the fact that I was unceremoniously removed from the beis medrash, he insisted that I return with my arm band.

Bill says:

She can’t be an heir to a rabbinical dynasty.
She is a woman!
That fact disqualifies her.

derzornhistology says:

In the sage words of Garth Algar: “Hello dream woman.”

Daniel:

Those Rabbis who are firmly in the pro-choice camp are also firmly in the anti-halacha camp. The halacha is clearly pro-life, with only very limited exceptions the parameters of which are subject to debate, for life or health of the mother. There is no halachic view that permits abortion on demand, notwithstanding any Rabbis you may know.

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Pol Position

How the heir to an Orthodox rabbinical dynasty landed in Pennsylvania’s Senate race

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