David Friedman’s nomination as President Trump’s ambassador to Israel raised a lot of eyebrows last year — not only due to Friedman’s harsh condemnations of liberal Jewish groups and his financial support for Israeli settlements, but also because his background was in bankruptcy law and not international relations or diplomacy, as was true of all ambassadors before him.
Friedman’s choice of Aryeh Lightstone as a senior adviser drew less attention a few months later, but if anything, Lightstone came even more out of left field — a Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi who has variously worked as a Jewish youth group leader, educational technology consultant and would-be casino developer. By comparison, Dan Shapiro, the ambassador to Israel for Barack Obama, told the Forward that the two people who served under him in Lightstone’s position both had extensive prior diplomatic experience.
The choice underscores Friedman’s and the rest of the Trump administration’s unprecedented, unequivocal support for the current Israeli government and their frequent decisions to draw advisers on Israel policy from a narrow pool of Orthodox Jewish New Yorkers, even when those people lack traditional credentials and experience.
Asked by the Forward what exactly Lightstone does for the embassy and why he was hired given his lack of diplomatic background, an embassy spokeswoman replied in a statement: “Lightstone assists the Ambassador in many aspects of his diplomatic mission. He was chosen by Ambassador Friedman who has known Lightstone for several years.” The spokeswoman also cited Lightstone’s expertise in Jewish education and pro-Israel advocacy. She declined to put Lightstone in touch with the Forward for an interview.
The ways in which Lightstone and Friedman’s lives have intersected reflects the paramount importance of connections in this new world, especially in the heavily-Orthodox “Five Towns” area of Long Island, where both of them lived before moving to Israel. Lightstone frequently gave lectures at Friedman’s synagogue in his 2006-2013 capacity as Long Island and then New York regional director of the Orthodox Union’s youth movement, NCSY; Lightstone’s daughter went to Jewish day school a few blocks from Friedman’s grandkids; Lightstone’s wife graduated a year ahead of Friedman’s daughter-in-law from Stern College, Yeshiva University’s women’s institution.
Lightstone also in 2011 worked with Ivanka Trump, who judged high school students’ proposals to improve Israel advocacy through a youth initiative of Lightstone’s called the Jewish Unity Mentoring Program. The winners of the previous year’s contest received a $2,500 check from Donald Trump, whose bankruptcy lawyer was David Friedman.
Lightstone, now in his late 30s, was a “very very bright, passionate young man,” former NCSY international director Rabbi Steven Burg told the Forward. “Very organized, very creative. He came up with a lot of programs that went national. Just all-around an incredibly hard worker.”
Burg, now the director general of the Orthodox group Aish HaTorah, said that he had repeatedly met with Lightstone since the adviser moved to Israel to take the position. He said that Lightstone was “working very, very closely with the ambassador” but said he didn’t know what specific projects or responsibilities Lightstone has.
A man on the move
Lightstone’s peripatetic employment history after his time at NCSY mixed Judaism, business and politics, including running a Jewish educational tech company called Aleph Beta.
He first gained notice in the mainstream Jewish press for co-hosting a local fundraising event for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas during the 2016 presidential primaries along with other Jewish business machers like Elliott Broidy, the Republican donor whose actions are currently being examined by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Lightstone’s State Department financial disclosure forms, which were revealed by a ProPublica investigation co-published with the Forward, showed that he held a stake worth up to $50,000 in one of Broidy’s businesses, called Threat Deterrence Capital LLC.
But Lightstone was already a known commodity as a community leader in local Jewish publications that focused on Orthodox readership. He and his events, both for NCSY and his later political endeavors, were frequently covered in the Five Towns Jewish Times, to which he periodically contributed op-eds.
For example, he wrote in that newspaper at the time of the Cruz fundraiser that he believed that Donald Trump, for whom he now works, “poses an existential danger to both the Republican Party and to the U.S.” He went on to accuse Trump of pandering to Jewish audiences when it came to Israel.
Shedding light on Shining City
Indeed, the defense of Israel has been both a personal and professional obligation for Lightstone. He worked for many years for a low-profile pro-Israel political advocacy organization called Shining City, though the timeline of his work there is a bit murky.
His LinkedIn page says that he was executive director from July 2014 to February 2015, but he was still listed as the organization’s executive director in bios of op-eds he wrote in September 2015 and February 2016. Even more confusingly, the financial disclosure form he filed with the State Department said that he was just a contractor for Shining City between January 2015 and January 2017. He described his duties there as “developing education for state and federal officials regarding the dangers of the boycott divestment and sanctions policies” against Israel.
Shining City was founded in 2014 to educate the public on “relations between Israel and the USA,” according to documents cited by Haaretz. It was set up by a law firm that specializes in helping politically conservative megadonors fund projects without revealing their identities.
Shining City was one of many Israel advocacy groups that emerged in 2014 and 2015 to fight against President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strongly opposed. In 2015, Lightstone, who according to Haaretz was Shining City’s only salaried employee at the time, filed several Freedom of Information Act requests for records about the administration’s plans to implement the deal.
In 2015, there was also an election in Israel, and Shining City was active in trying to influence politics there: The group donated around $1 million to Im Tirtzu, a right-wing group with ties to Netanyahu that campaigns against liberalism in academia and culture, specifically targeting foreign funding of left-wing advocacy groups. The State Department spokeswoman said that Lightstone has not met with Im Tirtzu in an official capacity since joining the embassy. She did not answer when asked whether Lightstone had a role in Shining City’s donation to Im Tirtzu.
Shining City has also been active in the United States in passing state-level anti-BDS legislation, most notably in Texas and Wisconsin with the help of a lobbyist named James Frinzi. Lightstone, writing in his capacity as executive director of Shining City, repeatedly praised Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in the Five Towns Jewish Times for opposing the Iran deal and signing an anti-BDS law, and arranged for Abbott’s trip to Israel to meet with Netanyahu. Abbott was frequently touted in 2016 as a likely 2020 presidential contender under the commonly held assumption that Hillary Rodham Clinton would defeat Trump.
Lightstone disclosed to the State Department that Shining City still owes him up to $50,000, which, an ethics expert warned the Forward and ProPublica, could make him “very susceptible to undue influence,” especially since its funders are unknown.
But reporting has shed some light on Shining City’s funding sources. A not-for-profit organization called the 45Committee, which The New York Times reported was “heavily funded” by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, gave $100,000 to Shining City between April 2016 and March 2017, according to the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Lightstone’s disclosure revealed that he owned up to $50,000 in shares of Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corporation.
Additionally, according to Haaretz, Shining City received contributions of $3.2 million in 2015, all from a group called Americans for Jerusalem, which has also donated directly to Im Tirtzu and is based in the office of the philanthropic foundation of Jewish megadonor Ronald Lauder.
Lightstone disclosed to the State Department that he had been paid by a similarly named group called Americans Friends of Jerusalem to consult on “ways to better educate lay leaders in the Midwest on the technological revolution occurring in Jerusalem.” The Forward has been unable to find any organization by that name. The State Department did not respond to a question about this discrepancy by publication time.
A final possible funding source may have slipped under the radar until now. Lightstone’s “policy adviser” at Shining City was one of his former students, a young Yeshiva University law school graduate named Shmuel Winiarz. According to their LinkedIn pages, at the same time that they both were at Shining City, they also were both employed by an educational technology company called Copia Interactive. Winiarz declined to comment.
Copia, where Lightstone worked as the vice president for business development from mid-2014 until December 2016, is owned by a private equity firm called DMC Capital Funding, run by a man named Andrew Lowinger — another member of the New York Jewish community who, like Friedman, is affiliated with the hawkish Orthodox Young Israel movement. Lowinger has donated to numerous Israeli charities, including causes like disability programs and bone marrow registries. Lowinger did not respond to phone calls or an email sent to his business.
The Copia-Shining City connections don’t stop there: According to a 2015 disclosure form, Copia hired a lobbyist in Wisconsin to talk with legislators about “educational technology,” and picked a familiar face: Frinzi, who was also lobbying for anti-BDS legislation there on Shining City’s behalf. Lightstone was listed in the form as Frinzi’s main contact — around the same time he was working both for Shining City and for “American Friends of Jerusalem” teaching people in the Midwest about the “technological revolution occurring in Jerusalem.”
Frinzi told the Forward that there was “0.0 connection” between Shining City and Copia. “In fact, I’m pretty certain that the bulk of the Shining City people don’t know the bulk of the Copia people,” he said. Frinzi, who runs his own firm, said he frequently lobbies about multiple issues at once. “If I see [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker, I’m going to talk about the 15 things I have,” he said.
Frinzi refused to say who Shining City’s donors were, but admitted, “If you printed out a list of really high-net Orthodox Jews, that would be legit.”
Let the good times roll
Lightstone’s ability to navigate the worlds of business and politics served him well at Copia: He spoke about using ed-tech in prisons to save governments money at the 2015 ALEC conference, the convention where activists literally write laws for conservative causes, like the pro-gun “Stand Your Ground” policy, which can be quickly plugged in and passed in state legislatures around the country. Lightstone’s comfort with state legislators grew so deep that he eventually went into business with two Texas representatives who had co-sponsored the state anti-BDS bill he had pushed.
But he hasn’t always been the best judge of business partners: In the first decade of the 2000s, he invested in companies operated by Sandra Manno, a former nun who became the mayor of a New Jersey town before rebooting again as a casino developer who has repeatedly been sued by jilted investors and associates.
Lightstone was personally named in a lawsuit alleging Manno had conducted slander and didn’t pay legal fees related to a proposed Native American casino in Oklahoma (the case was settled in 2009). He also invested in Manno’s effort to build a casino in Mississippi, which was complicated by Hurricane Katrina.
After years of stops-and-starts in development and many legal back-and-forths, a judge in Delaware, where one of Manno’s companies was registered, ruled in 2015 that she had to pay back nearly $1 million to a London-based investor because she “used the project to enrich herself, her family, and their friends through generous compensation, frequent cash withdrawals, and lavish living,” including by employing an ex-felon known as “Frankie the Fish” and hiring a friend to write a movie script about her life.
Is expertise needed?
Amid all the tumult and turnover of the Trump administration, what has remained consistent is that his Israeli-Palestinian policy is being shaped by four people with no prior geopolitical experience: three New York Jews — Ambassador Friedman, senior adviser/First Son-In-Law Jared Kushner and Trump Organization lawyer-turned-Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt — and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina.
Greenblatt and Haley were met during 2017 with cautious optimism by all the parties in the region — at least until Trump declared Jerusalem Israel’s capital and then moved its embassy there, spurring the Palestinian Authority to cut off all contact.
There’s no question that Lightstone will work to strengthen his country’s ties with the Israeli government — as all American diplomatic officials try to do with their host country. What remains to be seen is how exactly he plans to do it; whether he can work with liberal sectors of Israeli society that an organization he helped fund brands as enemies of the people; and whether the outstanding money still owed him by unknown parties with interests in the country will affect his actions.
Frinzi said he was confident in Lightstone’s fit at the embassy. “I don’t see why people think it’s such a stretch,” he said. “He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever worked with. He’s extremely knowledgeable about the issues.”
And Burg, the former NCSY international director, said that he wasn’t shocked when he learned of Lightstone’s new position.
“A lot of leaders in the Jewish community, or even the political community, you can trace their roots back to youth group and summer camp,” Burg said.
“I know NCSY regional directors who went on to become CEOs of major companies,” he said, adding, “It’s not as surprising as you think.”
Aiden Pink is the Deputy News Editor for the Forward.