WASHINGTON — Jack Abramoff needed a kosher restaurant in Washington to which to take his clients and congressional contacts. So he created one. Two, actually. Just like he started an Orthodox Jewish day school when he wasn’t impressed with the one his son was attending, and a high school yeshiva when his son graduated from elementary school.
The high-powered lobbyist, one of the most influential in town, says he’s that kind of guy. “If I see something I think is wrong, and I care about it, then I go and do something about it,” even if it means spending many millions of his own dollars, he said, sipping cream soda at his new deli.
Abramoff’s two restaurants — the only kosher deli in Washington and the only kosher fine dining restaurant in town — opened last month, in what many view as another indication of a Jewish renaissance in the nation’s capital. The deli, Stacks, has been packed since day one. Last week, diners had to wait 20 minutes for an early lunch table. The upscale restaurant, Archives, which has not been officially inaugurated, will try to elbow itself into the competitive arena of fancy power-restaurants in downtown Washington. Stacks has no competition. It is the only New York-style kosher deli in town, and seems to have little trouble attracting both Jews and non-Jewish pastrami and pickle fans.
Abramoff sees both restaurants, which share a kitchen, turning into a hub of Jewish life downtown, with Archives becoming a center of Jewish political power. “Folks from Jewish organizations who need a Jewish restaurant for a power meeting — this is where they will come — and also Jews who are not keeping kosher but want to be with their people, in a Jewish setting,” he said.
Washington’s kosher crowd was left with very few options a year ago, after the closing of the fine French-style L’Etoile, which for years was the only kosher restaurant in the city.
Yes, there was the humble Hillel cafeteria at George Washington University and the cafe at the local Jewish community center. But for lawyers and politicians, senior government officials and public figures who keep kosher — there are an estimated 30,000 Orthodox Jews in the Washington metropolitan area — there was nothing appropriate. “A big part of business and government relations are made over lunch or dinner meetings — and not having a place to hold such meetings really makes life difficult,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Washington office. “Now, for those of us who work in the political realm and keep kashrut, there will be a place.”
Some view Abramoff’s creation of Jewish institutions in Washington as a part of the revitalization of Jewish life in the District of Columbia and its suburbs. The D.C. Jewish Community Center has been revamped and revitalized in recent years. Last week, a group of Jewish investors — including Abe Pollin, owner of the Washington Wizards — bought the site of the District’s old Adas Israel synagogue, which in 1952 was sold to become a church. The buyers are planning to turn it into a community center and perhaps a museum. And there is talk among Jewish entrepreneurs and politicians about establishing a new national Jewish museum in town.
“This is certainly a part of a renaissance that has been ongoing now for at least 10 years,” said Jess Hordes, who directs the Washington office of the Anti-Defamation League.
Abramoff, a Republican who says that almost everything he does in life is derived from his conservative values, is more than likely to harness the new eateries to his political agenda. Late this month he’s planning to host a big fundraiser at Archives for incoming deputy majority whip Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House’s only Jewish Republican in the 108th Congress. Abramoff is planning to name one of his deli’s sandwiches — it’s not clear yet which one — after Cantor. Another one, for balance, will be named after Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.
Abramoff, 43, says he’s been a Republican since childhood. Soon after graduating from Brandeis University he became the chairman of the College Republican National Committee, which is where he made his first contacts with key party members. He became particularly close to the Christian conservative right, and later helped Ralph Reed, who had worked for him as a young student, to establish the Christian Coalition. He also befriended Texan Tom DeLay, the newly elected House majority leader, who was extremely instrumental — and now will presumably become much more so — in assisting clients and causes that Abramoff represents.
In recent years, Abramoff became one of Washington’s most successful lobbyists by representing Indian tribes who run casinos, and others who are striving to obtain gambling facilities. As an Orthodox Jew, he sees no religious problem with that. “There is no issur [prohibition] on gambling that I know of,” he said. From a conservative ideological perspective, Indian reservations light his imagination as a low-tax, unregulated, sovereign economic model for communities around the nation. Characterizing them in such a way helped him gain support for reservation-casinos among Republican legislators, even devout Christians who object to gambling on religious grounds.
His reputation for having the ear of senior Republican legislators and for getting things done has made him, according to The New York Times, one of the best compensated lobbyists in town. When asked to confirm the Times’ reporting that he charges $500 per hour, Abramoff said that the figure is not completely accurate. For his own time he actually charges $750 per hour, much above the standard lobbyists’ fee.
His move last year to the firm of Greenberg-Traurig LLP is credited with bouncing the firm from No. 16 to No. 4 in the National Journal’s ranking of lobbying law firms. Abramoff’s move was described by the National Journal as the “biggest story” of 2001 on K Street, Washington’s lobbyist-row.
Abramoff is a member of the board of Toward Tradition, the deeply conservative, Seattle-based coalition of Jews and Christians founded by Rabbi Daniel Lapin. Abramoff hired Lapin’s brother, Rabbi David Lapin of California, as dean of the Eshkol Academy, the new yeshiva high school he established last year in the Maryland suburbs.
Abramoff, a solid, thickset man who was once a competitive weight-lifter, says he has always worn his conservative politics and religion on his sleeve — indeed, when he met with the Forward he wore, accessorizing his fine double-breasted suit, a small black yarmulke and a tie dotted with tiny GOP elephants.
Abramoff said he never encountered any antagonism or resentment in the Republican establishment, even 20 years ago, when “Jewish Republican” sounded almost like a contradiction in terms. “The Jewish community is finally starting to understand that a party that is informed on Israel by its religious Christian members, who are not willing to waver from their support of Israel — not withstanding whatever latest peace fad might be going on — is one that would have Israel’s interest better in mind.”