Jack Lew, President Obama’s current chief of staff and his pick for Treasury secretary, is the highest-ranking Orthodox Jew in the history of the U.S. government. It’s a distinction that imposes some unusual burdens—like having to dodge opinionated congregants who try to accost him about politics in synagogue. The 57-year-old New York native recently told me that he has developed a strategy for such situations. “Your friends protect you—they sit around you and make it a little harder for strangers to come and give you a hard time,” he explained. “I just tell people, ‘If I wanted to work on Saturday, I have this 24/7 job. I come to shul to pray.’ ”
Lew’s nomination to succeed Timothy Geithner as Treasury chief is the culmination of a distinguished career in public service. Over nearly four decades in and out of Washington, he has been a senior policy adviser to Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill; a special adviser to President Bill Clinton; the director of the Office of Management and Budget under the last two Democratic presidents; and since January 2012, President Obama’s chief of staff—the fourth Jew to occupy the post in the nation’s history. (The others are his predecessors, Rahm Emanuel and Josh Bolten, as well as Reagan official Kenneth Duberstein.)
As the Obama Administration’s most high-profile Jewish appointee, Lew has served as the White House’s point person for outreach to the Jewish community. When the president decided to tap controversial former Sen. Chuck Hagel as his next secretary of Defense, Lew was reportedly dispatched to call AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr and defend the pick. In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, Lew met regularly with Jewish leaders on the campaign trail to reassure them about Obama’s intentions toward Israel, and even publicly debated former Bush Jewish liaison Tevi Troy on that and other subjects.
This past summer, while serving as chief of staff in the White House, Lew hosted the leaders of the country’s different Jewish denominations. And when the White House began blogging the High Holiday recipes of its Jewish staffers in September, Lew contributed his family’s tzimmes recipe. (The New York Times would later report that Lew makes “a mean potato kugel.”) It’s not the only culinary contribution Lew has been responsible for while serving in the administration: The White House added a kosher option to their takeaway lunch menu to accommodate his dietary restrictions.
Over the course of his career in government, Lew has built strong relationships with Jewish politicians on both sides of the aisle. Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has spoken highly of him, telling Politico in 2011 that “no one was more prepared and more in tune with the numbers than Jack Lew. He was always very polite and respectful in his tone and someone who I can tell is very committed to his principles.” And when Sen. Joe Lieberman’s retirement party was held this past November, Lew was the Democrat who toasted him—citing a saying from Pirkei Avot—alongside Republican Sen. John McCain. (Lieberman then thanked Lew and jokingly explained how he’d always been envious that Lew managed to “be Jewish and convince people by your name that you’re actually Asian-American.”)
Lew’s ties to the American Jewish community run deep. On Hanukkah in 1998, he was one of the first federal officials to light the Chabad menorah in the nation’s capital. During the height of the efforts to free Jews under Soviet rule, Lew worked with Natan Sharansky and his current Riverdale synagogue rabbi, Avi Weiss, to advocate for the cause. (Weiss, rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, calls Lew “one of the most unassuming, giving, and caring congregants I’ve ever been blessed to have,” adding that it is “rare for a person in such a powerful position to be the quintessential mensch.”) This past December, Lew accepted an honorary degree from Yeshiva University, where he delivered the keynote address at its annual Hanukkah dinner.
Ironically, though, Lew is perhaps most famous among American Jews for a story that never actually happened—at least as it was reported. When Lew was tapped by President Obama to direct the Office of Management and Budget in 2010, NBC claimed that he had once refused to pick up a phone call from President Clinton on Shabbat, even when the latter entreated on the answering machine that “God would understand.” It’s a fun anecdote, Lew told me, with one flaw: “It’s kind of fabricated.”
“The true story is I came home one [Shabbat] morning from shul, and the phone machine was going off saying ‘please disregard the previous message from President Clinton. He just remembered that it’s Saturday and he’s going to call someone else,’ ” Lew recalled in November, when I spoke to him while he was on the campaign trail in Ohio. “He was out of the country and forgot what day it was.” Clinton, he said, was always careful never to trouble Lew on Shabbat unless the matter was urgent, and Lew, knowing this, would never have ignored his call. “He knew that I’d take this call on a Saturday if he needed me; he knew I’d get in a car and come in if he needed me,” Lew explained. That’s why Clinton called back to tell Lew to ignore his initial message. Rather than being an example of a conflict between Lew’s religious and political obligations, the real story “illustrates tolerance and understanding.”
“I have found that people are tremendously respectful of things like personal observance that are rooted in beliefs and values,” said Lew. “I’ve been really privileged to work for two presidents—President Obama and President Clinton—who are both people of faith, who value faith, and who respect that others have the same feelings in their own lives.”
In fact, Lew says being Shabbat-observant has helped him prioritize his hectic work schedule. “There’s a great desire that people have in positions that are close to power to be at the meeting in the room,” said Lew. “You have to separate, I believe, your desire to be there from your need to be there. If you’re the only one who can help make or shape a decision, it’s very different from just wanting to see what goes on.”
Drawing that line is difficult, he added, but as “somebody who has managed to balance family and religious values with public life, I think it can be done.” And the rewards, for Lew, are worth the struggle. “I think there’s no higher calling in terms of a career than public service, which is a chance to make a difference in people’s lives and improve the world,” he said. Indeed, “the opportunities to make a difference are probably greater than any other line of work,” which is “not a bad way to spend your professional life.”
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Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.