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.
House Speaker John Boehner complained that Lew often dug in his heels whenever cuts to entitlement programs were raised during the talks. Those negotiations eventually collapsed, and Vice President Joe Biden cut a separate deal with Senate Republicans.
Weiss met Lew in the mid-1970s, when Lew first arrived in Washington. Both responded to an ad posted on the George Washington University Hillel House bulletin board seeking a kosher roommate. With time, Lew and Weiss, two young congressional staffers, began to host weekly Saturday minyans in their shared house on Nebraska Avenue in Northwest Washington. Lew would help out with reading the Torah. It was a traditional minyan, although, Weiss admits it would probably not pass as Orthodox nowadays because men and women were not strictly separated.
At the time, Lew, now 57, worked on the staff of the firebrand New York Jewish Democrat Bella Abzug. Though still young in politics, Lew was already committed to liberal causes, which fit well with Abzug’s approach. His first taste of politics came earlier, when he was 12, volunteering in the presidential campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy, who ran on an anti-Vietnam War platform. Lew’s writings in his high school newspaper reflected the young activist’s fervor for liberal causes and his opposition to the war.
Lew’s worldview was probably shaped even earlier. Growing up in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens to parents who emigrated from Poland gave Lew a strong sense of appreciation of the opportunities the government can offer its citizens in need. His mother, Ruth Lew, worked as an office manager from the age of 15 to help her family. Irving Lew, his father, was a lawyer and a dealer of rare books who had arrived in America in 1916 and learned to speak English while attending a Brooklyn public school.
“This is very much part of my understanding of what government is,” Lew said in a 1999 interview with The New York Times. “What would have become of my father if he hadn’t been able to learn English in the public schools?”
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.
Jack Lew and his wife Ruth hosted Sharansky in their Washington apartment, and Jack took turns, with the Washington Institute for Newar East Policy’s senior fellow David Makovsky, who at that time was a Harvard student on vacation, escorting Sharansky across the nation. Makovsky described Lew succinctly, “He is a super-mensch,” Makovsky said, using the term repeated frequently by other members of the Jewish community asked to describe Lew.
“It is, I believe, rare for a person in such a powerful position to be the quintessential mensch,” weighed in Rabbi Avi Weiss, from the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
As Obama’s chief of staff since 2011 and in his former capacity as Office of Management and Budget director, Lew chose to split his time between Washington and New York, where his family now resides. On weekends he tries to get back to New York to be with his wife and with his baby grandson. As sundown approaches on Fridays, Lew told the Forward in an October 2012 interview, the president gently reminds Lew that it is time to leave, before the Sabbath. The reason, Lew said, is “to remind me that it’s important to him, not just to me, that I be able to make that balance.”
Moving up the government ladder, as Clinton and Obama’s chief budget director and as White House chief of staff, Lew became somewhat of a Jewish celebrity, an awkward status for a government official whose camera shyness became his trademark.
At his local synagogue in Potomac, Md., as the story goes, Lew had to turn down requests to take over as treasurer, jokingly claiming that synagogue finances would be harder to manage than the nation’s budget.
For Jewish groups, especially the Orthodox Union, Lew became a frequent speaker. His tzimmes recipe was featured on the White House website. And Chabad-Lubavitch honored him twice with the lighting of the National Menorah on the Ellipse behind the White House.
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.”