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The Lew family was considered closer to Conservative Judaism than to Orthodoxy. Jack Lew attended public schools and was known for his long hair, ripped jeans and boots. A yarmulke was not part of Lew’s attire growing up, nor is it now. Still, as an adult Lew has shifted toward a more traditional Jewish lifestyle. He strictly observes the Sabbath and the laws of kashrut, and his two children attended Jewish day schools. Danny Lew, his son, spent a year studying at a yeshiva in Israel.
After graduating from Harvard University, Lew returned to Washington. Weiss, already a senior staffer for legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill, brought Lew on board, where he took on domestic issues. It was a perfect fit for Lew. O’Neill, a Massachusetts liberal Democrat, was a champion of social safety net legislation, and Lew, who became the speaker’s top adviser on domestic affairs, helped broker a deal to save Social Security and was instrumental in crafting the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides free or low-cost medical coverage for children.
Last December, speaking at Yeshiva University’s annual dinner, Lew reflected on the mixture of faith and public service he began to shape in his years on O’Neill’s staff.
“As an observant Jew, I honor the practices of my faith and the rights, credos and responsibilities it stands for. As a proud citizen, I believe in working to make sure that this is a world full of opportunity where you can achieve anything if you’re willing to work for it. And as a public servant, I believe that these values, both religious and secular, inform, inspire and elevate the impact that each of us has on our homes, community and the world,” he said.
Lew and Weiss, two Orthodox Jews in an office shaped by O’Neill’s strong sympathies to his Irish background, did not feel out of place. “We worked for someone who believed strongly in the combination of being American and having another identity,” Weiss said.
Before joining Bill Clinton’s White House in 1998, Lew volunteered his time and energy in trying to help Natan Sharansky, then a recently released refusenik from the Soviet Gulag, mobilize the American Jewish community. It was 1987, and Sharansky was traveling to Jewish communities, speaking about his experience and enlisting participants for the massive National Mall demonstration for the release of the Soviet Jewry.