Among many moves aimed at reversing his predecessor’s policies, President Trump recently decided not to make public the White House visitors logs. Had they been open, the lists would reveal the profound change 100 days of a Trump administration had brought about to the Jewish community’s power structure.
“The atmosphere has changed, at least for us. There’s a sense of familiarity and greater receptivity, and that makes a better atmosphere,” said Abba Cohen, vice president for federal affairs at Agudath Israel of America, a group representing the ultra-Orthodox stream.
Liberal-leaning Jewish activists, once the backbone of communal advocacy, had been pushed aside in favor of a new elite made up of activists who are more conservative in their politics and more Orthodox in their religious practice. The new leaders representing American Jewish interests in the White House are keen to shape policy on education and religious expression and to ensure a pro-Israel stance more in line with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
Agudath Israel may speak for a relatively small portion of the Jewish community, but it succeeded in landing the first White House meeting among all Jewish groups.
On March 8, leaders of the organization visited the White House and sat down with Trump’s policy advisers, including counterterrorism adviser Sebastian Gorka and Boris Epshteyn, who has since left his position on Trump’s communication team. Agudath Israel leaders were also the first to meet with the education secretary, Betsy DeVos. The group favored her appointment, as it wants to expand the use of public funds for parochial education.
Agudath Israel has also found shared interests with the Trump administration on an interpretation of religious freedom that would allow more leeway for faith groups to avoid anti-discrimination rules on hiring, school curriculum and health care. But Cohen, one of the longest-serving Washington representatives of major Jewish groups, said that it’s about more than policy.
In the Trump White House, which critics have deemed insensitive to Jewish issues, Orthodox activists have found allies. “The more I learn about the administration, I learn that there are more Jews there who are active in Jewish life,” he said, pointing to Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner; international negotiations envoy Jason Greenblatt, and David Friedman, the new ambassador to Israel, all of whom are Orthodox. “They have an intimate knowledge of the Jewish community and of Israel, and that makes the difference.”
But there’s also the personal aspect. With the center of gravity moving, from Washington, D.C., and New York City’s Upper West Side, to New Jersey and Long Island’s Modern Orthodox enclaves, a new power structure is emerging, one that was forged in the pews of Teaneck, New Jersey, synagogues and at New York religious school fundraisers.
No one knows this better than Ben Chouake, a New Jersey physician who heads NORPAC, America’s largest pro-Israel political action committee. Greenblatt and Friedman were on his board, and he even used to meet the Kushners, including family patriarch Charles and sons Jared and Josh, at weddings and family events. “I have a lot more comfort with this administration,” Chouake said. In part, he says, it’s because he shares background and beliefs with some of Trump’s senior staffers. “This administration is much, much more congenial to U.S.-Israel relations,” he added.
NORPAC will be heading to Washington in June for its annual lobbying mission, focused on improving U.S.-Israel relations, but at least in the Trump White House, Chouake feels he won’t have a problem conveying his message. “I need to talk to David Friedman? I need to talk to Greenblatt? What, they don’t know what to do?” he asked, adding, “You have people in positions there that are emotionally inclined in favor of Israel, and that’s something that was emotionally missing in the previous administration.”
Adding weight to the Modern Orthodox circle of influence is another New Jersey activist - Morton Fridman, who was recently selected to serve as the next president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Fridman will be only the second Orthodox Jew to serve at AIPAC’s helm. He was previously NORPAC’s vice president. AIPAC has proved in the past its ability to choose top leaders in line with the president occupying the White House. After Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the lobby turned to fellow Chicago liberal Lee Rosenberg to serve as president. Now it is reaching out to Fridman, an Orthodox conservative who may be closer to White House Jewish players.
The Zionist Organization Of America, which the Obama White House largely ignored, is also seeing its star rise under the new administration. It was the first to score a meeting with a member of the Trump team after the election. President Morton Klein met in New York with an aide, Anthony Scaramucci. He left the White House shortly afterward.
The Orthodox Union raised its profile by lobbying in support of Friedman’s confirmation. Chabad welcomed Kushner and Ivanka Trump to Washington, and Sheldon Adelson, one of Trump’s top donors, who is not Orthodox, was already invited to a private dinner with the president at the White House. Groups that Adelson supports, including the Republican Jewish Coalition and Christians United For Israel, also got their share of face time with Trump in the first 100 days of his presidency.
These shifts in Jewish power are natural, argued Matt Nosanchuk, who served as Obama’s liaison to the Jewish community between 2013 and 2016. Most have to do with policy rather than with personal or religious affinity, he said. “I tried to engage with a broad spectrum of Jewish organizations, but a lot has to with shared priorities,” Nosanchuk said of his time at the White House.
He recalled working closer with groups such as the Religious Action Center Of Reform Judaism, the National Council Of Jewish Women and Bend The Arc Jewish Action, groups that now share little with the Trump administration. “It’s not that we shut anyone out, but we definitely had closer relations with those groups aligned with our priorities,” he said. An official with one of the major Jewish groups who had visited the Obama White House several times confirmed that relations with the Trump administration are very different. “They haven’t showed any interest,” the official said. He would not speak on record, citing concern for future relations of his organization with the Trump administration.
Formal avenues to the White House for Jewish groups have also been difficult to access, since Trump has yet to fill the positions of liaison to the Jewish community, head of the faith-based office and special envoy for combating anti-Semitism.
Trump, in his public outreach efforts, has made the Orthodox community a priority. During the presidential campaign, he gave his only interview with an American Jewish publication to the ultra-Orthodox Mishpacha magazine. “He is eager for me to understand that Orthodox Jews aren’t alien species to him,” observed the reporter, Yisroel Besser. The interview took place a day before the April New York primary, and Trump was in full campaign mode, trying to make the case for Orthodox Jews to vote for him. Turning to Besser, he said, “Look, you’re a visibly Orthodox Jew,” explaining that he could be targeted by anti-Semites in Europe. “They’ve already learned they can do whatever they want and get away with it. Obama taught them that.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.