Washington — On a muggy evening last August, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg walked into a kosher restaurant in Boca Raton, Fla., only to spot White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew having dinner at a corner table. Goldberg approached Lew, who was in town for a series of events for President Obama’s re-election campaign, and asked him to meet with a group of teenagers from his Orthodox synagogue.
Lew agreed. But in the meeting the next morning, he spoke about neither the president’s policies nor the upcoming elections. Rather, Lew chose to focus on how observant Jews — like the teenagers and himself — can easily take up public service without giving up their beliefs, without having to compromise.
“He said we need to show people working with us that it is a privilege to work with an Orthodox Jew, not the other way around,” Goldberg recalled. He added that Lew made clear how observant Jews should recognize that “every time you need time to be off, someone else needs to cover for you. Don’t take that lightly, and don’t feel entitled.”
Lew has become the standard-bearer for integration of observant Jews in the highly demanding world of top-level politics and government service. Stories of Lew’s shutting down his telephone for the Sabbath or getting the White House cafeteria to add kosher sandwiches to the menu have become a part of Washington’s folklore.
For the first Orthodox Jew to assume a Cabinet position, Jewish values and family history go beyond a decent pastrami on rye. They helped shape a worldview that puts equal opportunity and the social safety net front and center. If confirmed as expected by the Senate, those are the values Lew will take with him as he becomes America’s next Treasury secretary.
“The idea that you have the responsibility to help those who are less fortunate is something that resonated in Jack’s commitment both in the political attitude and in his religious approach,” said Ari Weiss, a close friend of Lew.
Lew’s passionate — critics might say knee-jerk — devotion to the social safety net has at time been controversial, notably when he played a key role in trying to resolve the so-called “fiscal cliff” stand-off between the White House and Congressional Republicans.