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

Allison Hoffman
May 17, 2010

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.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.