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Washington — In 2011, recalled Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the group’s Washington director, Lew was about to light the menorah when he received a call on his cell phone. Shemtov, noticing the urgency, changed the order of the ceremony and rushed Lew to the crane, which hoisted him to light the giant Hanukkah lamp. Lew later explained that it was President Obama on the phone, waiting for him to return to the office.
Focusing throughout his career on domestic policy, Lew had little to do with issues relating to Israel, although he visited the Jewish state several times, both in formal capacity and on family trips. On becoming Obama’s chief of staff, however, Lew assumed more responsibilities on the political level, bringing him directly into involvement with the boss’s policies regarding Israel.
During the election season last year, Lew took off a few days to campaign for Obama with Jewish voters in South Florida and in Cleveland, two key swing states at the time. In his talks, he stressed Obama’s commitment to Israel but did not seem to divulge any of his own views regarding Israel and the Middle East. Lew is well aware of poll data showing that most of his fellow Orthodox Jews lean toward the Republican side. In an interview before the elections, he said that some members pull him aside at synagogue and express their support for Obama, but “they’re a little bit afraid to say it publicly, because some of the more powerful voices in the Orthodox community have been intimidating.”
Lew was recently asked once again to help out with the Jewish community, this time following the controversy surrounding the appointment of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense. He made phone calls to Jewish leaders, convincing them to ease their opposition to Hagel.
Lew will be the first Orthodox Jew to become a Cabinet member, but not the first to draw national attention. Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman’s run for vice president on the 2000 Democratic ticket brought much public notice to the customs and beliefs of Orthodox Jews.
“It is a point of communal pride,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the O.U. But, he added, the glass ceiling has already been broken: “Joe Lieberman’s nomination took care of that.”
Still, marveling on the occasion, former Florida congressman Robert Wexler told an audience at Georgetown University on January 14, “Look how far we’ve come.” Referring to criticism of lack of diversity in the president’s new Cabinet, Wexler noted, “Obama appoints an Orthodox Jew, and everyone sees him as just another white man.”