How Jared Kushner Became a Teenage Hero — and Learned To Be a Zionist

Almost 20 years before Jared Kushner became a chief adviser to Donald Trump, a man who has boasted about groping women’s genitals, he rescued a teenage girl from a groping attack in Poland.

The incident happened in 1998, when Kushner was a high school participant in the March of the Living, a Holocaust education trip to Poland and Israel that also may have helped solidify the teenager’s commitment to Zionism and a right-wing vision of support for Israel.

One day, in Krakow, Kushner was walking with a few dozen teens when an unshaven man wobbled toward the tour group and grabbed 16-year-old Elisheva Ben Ze’ev, then Elisheva Weiss, pulling her into a sickening hug.

Within a second, Kushner had yanked the man off Ben Ze’ev and thrown him to the ground. “Don’t you touch her! Get away from us!” Kushner screamed as the stunned group looked on, according to Ben Ze’ev. Marti Sichel, a fellow participant, said Kushner marched the attacker to a nearby security guard, who took him away.

Ben Ze’ev said she thanked Kushner, but he brushed it off.

“I think he was embarrassed,” she said. “He was like, ‘Oh, come on, it was nothing.’ He didn’t really think of it as ‘Oh, everyone look at me, look at what I did.’ He was like: ‘Oh, of course I did that. I was right there.’”

The two-week trip did more than just expose a little-known stand-up side of Kushner’s personality. It also helped frame a powerful bond to Jewish continuity and a commitment to an unbending support for Israel.

The trip was personal for Kushner, whose grandparents Joseph and Rae Kushner survived the Holocaust in Poland and eventually immigrated to Brooklyn. Joel Katz, his trip leader, described Kushner as a quiet, down-to-earth, intellectual teen already “extremely steeped in Holocaust education and yiddishkeit,” or Jewishness.

“He was understanding the severity of our journey, the commitment he had to his family and his legacy,” said Katz.

The Israel leg of the journey coincided with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state. It too packed an emotional punch with Kushner, and may have helped skew his views to the far right of the pro-Israel spectrum along with his parents, who have funded radical Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank and other right wing causes.

Back in Krakow, though, Kushner was a fresh-faced 17-year-old yeshiva student on his way to Harvard University, where his father, real estate magnate Charles Kushner, had just made a $2.5 million donation. The gift was “no secret” on the trip, according to Sichel, who said Kushner “seemed very average.”

For at least a moment, he was a hero.

Ben Ze’ev said she has only “good memories” of the boy who came to her aid. “He was the nicest guy, very sweet,” she said of Kushner, who was then a senior at the Frisch School, a coeducational yeshiva in Paramus, New Jersey.

Though his father was a multimillionaire, Kushner didn’t dress the part, wearing sneakers and jeans like the rest of the participants. The dress shirts and designer jeans apparently came later, when Kushner was a student at Harvard, according to a New Yorker profile.

Once described as a “great New Jersey boy” by his wife Ivanka Trump, Kushner caught the attention of many girls on March of the Living. “Tall and very American looking,” he hasn’t aged since the trip, Sichel said. “Throw a baseball cap on him and you’ve got it.” But apparently Kushner didn’t let the attention get to him.

“He didn’t come off as a jerk like somebody might if they know that all the girls on their tour are crushing on them,” said Sichel.

Kushner’s teenage heroism stands in contrast to his behavior at a key moment in his father-in-law’s campaign for president. When a 2005 recording surfaced last October in which Trump bragged of grabbing and kissing women without their consent, Kushner rushed to Trump’s side.

An Orthodox Jew who observes the Sabbath, Kushner broke with his Saturday tradition to attend a small meeting in Trump Tower to get Trump’s campaign back on track as Republican leaders were calling for the candidate to drop out of the race.

Today, Kushner, 36, plays a central role in the new U.S. administration. Last week the Department of Justice cleared him as a senior adviser in the White House.

Trump has said that Kushner, a real estate developer with no diplomatic credentials, will be his Middle East peace broker. The New York Times’ former Jerusalem bureau chief, Thomas Friedman, reportedly quipped that Kushner’s qualification for the role was that he “once went to Jewish summer camp.”

It’s not summer camp, but the March of the Living trip was one of Kushner’s early experiences in Israel. March of the Living was founded in 1988, and has since brought more than 220,000 Jewish high school students and adults to Poland and Israel on its Holocaust education trips. The trip is religious, and participants observe the Jewish Sabbath and pray three times a day.

The two-week trip is framed as a deeply emotional pilgrimage with its message of Zionist rebirth after the Holocaust. The climax is a 2-mile march, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, that starts at the Nazi camp Auschwitz and ends at another Nazi camp, Birkenau. Participants and Holocaust survivors walk solemnly with Israeli flags. According to the trip handbook from Kushner’s year, the marchers entered Birkenau as a loudspeaker broadcast the names of children who were killed in the Holocaust.

“I don’t think there was anyone who wasn’t moved at one point or another to tears,” Sichel said.

Katz recalled Kushner’s visit to the gas chambers at Auschwitz, where participants ran their fingers over grooves in the wall left by Jews who tried hopelessly to claw their way out. He also remembered Kushner’s reaction on a visit to mausoleum at Majdanek, where bone fragments of Jewish victims are still visible.

“He was impacted and touched every step of the way, but those two locations had significant connection to him,” he said. Katz would later lead Kushner’s father and two siblings on March of the Living trips.

Kushner invoked his family Holocaust history during the campaign when Trump was accused of anti-Semitism after tweeting an image of Hillary Clinton with a stack of dollar bills and a Star of David.

In a piece for the New York Observer, which Kushner owns, he told the story of his grandmother’s harrowing escape from the Novogrudok ghetto to the woods. There she met Kushner’s grandfather, who had been hiding as part of the Jewish resistance.

“I go into these details, which I have never discussed, because it’s important to me that people understand where I’m coming from when I report that I know the difference between actual, dangerous intolerance versus these labels that get tossed around in an effort to score political points,” Kushner wrote in defense of Trump.

Two of Kushner’s cousins, Marc Kushner and Jacob Schulder, publicly condemned Kushner for bringing their grandparents into the election, which Schulder called “a shame.”

Kushner has had an icy relationship with these cousins for years, since they testified against Kushner’s father in the 2005 case that sent him to prison for tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign contributions. According to a profile in The New Yorker, the imprisonment of his father was the “defining moment” of Kushner’s life.

After Poland, Kushner’s tour group went to Israel, where the Holocaust education continued. The group traveled to Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where David Ben Gurion declared Israel a state, to Tzfat, the mystical city in northern Israel, to the Western Wall holy site and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The tour did not touch on current events or politics. Sichel did not recall meeting with any Palestinians.

Kushner has stayed engaged with Israel since his teenage trip, traveling to the region several times. His family skews ultra right on Israel, and has given almost $60,000 in donations to settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank through the Seryl and Charles Kushner Family Foundation, according to Haaretz.

Katz, who emails Kushner every week since as part of a mass email to past participants, said it’s a “fabulous feeling” to have a March of the Living alumn in the White House.

“I thank the Kadosh Baruchu [the Holy One] that what I believe is a strong advocate and a strong representative and a strong person steeped in yiddishkeit is so close to the epicenter of our future,” he said.

Sichel and Ben Ze’ev, for their parts, have not stayed in touch with Kushner in the years since the trip. But Sichel said she often thought about Kushner’s courageous act to save her friend during Trump’s campaign for president. She, like so many, has marveled Kushner’s rise to power.

“I didn’t say, ‘My God, this guy is going to be one of the top guys in charge of the United States government in 20 years.’”

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at zeveloff@forward.com or on Twitter, @naomizeveloff

Author

Naomi Zeveloff

Naomi Zeveloff

Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

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How Jared Kushner Became a Teenage Hero — and Learned To Be a Zionist

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