Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg noted Jacob Lew would be the first Orthodox Jew to serve as Treasury Secretary. Rosenberg wrote:
Jack Lew, President Obama’s current chief of staff and his pick for Treasury secretary, is the highest-ranking Orthodox Jew in the history of the U.S. government. It’s a distinction that imposes some unusual burdens-like having to dodge opinionated congregants who try to accost him about politics in synagogue. The 57-year-old New York native recently told me that he has developed a strategy for such situations. ‘Your friends protect you-they sit around you and make it a little harder for strangers to come and give you a hard time,’ he explained. ‘I just tell people, “If I wanted to work on Saturday, I have this 24/7 job. I come to shul to pray.”’...
As the Obama Administration’s most high-profile Jewish appointee, Lew has served as the White House’s point person for outreach to the Jewish community….
This past summer, while serving as chief of staff in the White House, Lew hosted the leaders of the country’s different Jewish denominations. (Afterward, Lew’s interns scrupulously filed and catalogued all the gifts he received from these individuals, right down to translations of their Hebrew inscriptions.) And when the White House began blogging the High Holiday recipes of its Jewish staffers in September, Lew contributed his family’s tzimmes recipe. (The New York Times would later report that Lew makes ‘a mean potato kugel.’) It’s not the only culinary contribution Lew has been responsible for while serving in the administration: The White House added a kosher option to their takeaway lunch menu to accommodate his dietary restrictions….
Lew’s ties to the American Jewish community run deep. On Hanukkah in 1998, he was one of the first federal officials to light the Chabad menorah in the nation’s capital. During the height of the efforts to free Jews under Soviet rule, Lew worked with Natan Sharansky and his current Riverdale synagogue rabbi, Avi Weiss, to advocate for the cause. (Weiss, rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, calls Lew ‘one of the most unassuming, giving, and caring congregants I’ve ever been blessed to have,’ adding that it is ‘rare for a person in such a powerful position to be the quintessential mensch.’) This past December, Lew accepted an honorary degree from Yeshiva University, where he delivered the keynote address at its annual Hanukkah dinner.
Ironically, though, Lew is perhaps most famous among American Jews for a story that never actually happened-at least as it was reported. When Lew was tapped by President Obama to direct the Office of Management and Budget in 2010, NBC claimed that he had once refused to pick up a phone call from President Clinton on Shabbat, even when the latter entreated on the answering machine that ‘God would understand.’ It’s a fun anecdote, Lew told me, with one flaw: ‘It’s kind of fabricated.’
‘The true story is I came home one [Shabbat] morning from shul, and the phone machine was going off saying ‘please disregard the previous message from President Clinton. He just remembered that it’s Saturday and he’s going to call someone else,‘Lew recalled in November, when I spoke to him while he was on the campaign trail in Ohio. ‘He was out of the country and forgot what day it was.’ Clinton, he said, was always careful never to trouble Lew on Shabbat unless the matter was urgent, and Lew, knowing this, would never have ignored his call. ‘He knew that I’d take this call on a Saturday if he needed me; he knew I’d get in a car and come in if he needed me,’ Lew explained. That’s why Clinton called back to tell Lew to ignore his initial message. Rather than being an example of a conflict between Lew’s religious and political obligations, the real story ‘illustrates tolerance and understanding.’
‘I have found that people are tremendously respectful of things like personal observance that are rooted in beliefs and values,’ said Lew. ‘I’ve been really privileged to work for two presidents-President Obama and President Clinton-who are both people of faith, who value faith, and who respect that others have the same feelings in their own lives.’
In fact, Lew says being Shabbat-observant has helped him prioritize his hectic work schedule. ‘There’s a great desire that people have in positions that are close to power to be at the meeting in the room,’ said Lew. ‘You have to separate, I believe, your desire to be there from your need to be there. If you’re the only one who can help make or shape a decision, it’s very different from just wanting to see what goes on.’
Drawing that line is difficult, he added, but as ‘somebody who has managed to balance family and religious values with public life, I think it can be done.’ And the rewards, for Lew, are worth the struggle. ‘I think there’s no higher calling in terms of a career than public service, which is a chance to make a difference in people’s lives and improve the world,’ he said. Indeed, ‘the opportunities to make a difference are probably greater than any other line of work,’ which is ‘not a bad way to spend your professional life.’
The Forward noted in October that President Barack Obama has made respecting—and encouraging—Lew’s Sabbath observance a priority:
‘I saw the president on many occasions on Friday afternoons look at his watch, and ask: “Isn’t it time for you to get going?”’ Lew said, ‘or, “Why are you still here?”’ The president was not checking the clock ‘because he doesn’t think I can keep time,’ Lew said. Rather, the extra care on this issue reflects the President’s wish ‘to remind me that it’s important to him, not just to me, that I be able to make that balance.’
Lew, who is Orthodox, revealed the details about his keeping Shabbat in an extraordinary interview with the Forward that touched on his need to observe the Jewish holy day.
‘And he’s respected that time and again,’ the chief of staff said of Obama.
The chief of staff noted it was Obama who brought up the issue of Shabbat when first offering Lew the job.
‘He raised it with me saying: “I know that things are going to come up where there’s an emergency on Saturday or that you need to be here. I know you well enough to know that this is not an issue. I want you to know that I’m never going to ask you to work on Saturday if it’s not really necessary. It’s important for me that you know that.”’
On his behalf, Lew provided the President with his own assurances.
‘I’ve made it clear,’ Lew said, ‘that you don’t have to wonder if there’s a crisis whether I’m available. If you need me, I don’t even consider it a violation of my faith to be doing the things I need to do to make sure people are not in harm’s way’...
Lew’s value is not just his example but also his advice, said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the director of American Friends of Lubavitch, who often acts as an adviser to devout Jews in Washington seeking to balance observance and public service.
‘Jack Lew does not only seek rabbinical advice, he sometimes helps dispense it,’ Shemtov said.
Shemtov recalled having to consider a request from a congregant who was called in to government work urgently on a religious holiday. Lew happened to be in synagogue, and Shemtov was able to consult with someone familiar both with governance and halachah, or Jewish law.
‘He’s able to give an inside view of the scale of urgency in a way that that can help rabbis and even communal leaders understand things more practically,’ he said.
Jewish audiences thrill to such insights. Clevelanders attending a pre-election debate between Troy and Lew enjoyed their back and forth on Israel and domestic policy, but especially lit up when the two recalled their gentle explanations of observance to non-Jewish colleagues. Lew drew laughs when he recalled having to explain to congressional leaders that there was no need to suspend sessions for Chanukah—it was not a holiday requiring an absence from work.
‘It was a policy debate, and it was important and it was serious,’ said Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, who moderated the debate. ‘The closing discussion about his role as a Sabbath-observant Jew in the highest levels of government was both insightful and inspiring.’
** Update January 11, 2013 **
The Jerusalem Post’s editorial board wished Lew “mazal tov” and said that Lew’s appointment is “an opportunity for Jews in Israel and abroad to kvel.” JPost editorialized:
Last January, when President Barack Obama appointed Jacob ‘Jack’ Lew as White House chief of staff, a position considered to be closest to the US president’s ear, David Harris, president and CEO of the National Democratic Jewish Council, declared it to be ‘a point of communal pride.’
Rabbi Steven Burg and Nathan Diament, top officials at the Orthodox Union, wished Lew ‘a hearty mazel tov on his historic appointment.’
Now with Lew slated to take over the post of Treasury secretary, another tribal feel-good session is in order….
Lew appears to have won Obama’s faith to an unusual degree. Last year when he appointed Lew as his chief of staff, Obama said, ‘If there was a Hall of Fame for budget directors, then Jack Lew surely would have earned a place for his service in that role under president Clinton.’
He has served as one of Obama’s top lieutenants in negotiations over the ‘fiscal cliff’ crisis. And when Obama was locked in painful spending negotiations with House Republicans last spring, Lew, described by the New York Times as ‘his exceedingly meticulous budget director,’ went to the Oval Office to propose some complex budget changes. As Lew delved deeper and deeper into the numbers, Obama put up his hand, signaling him to stop. ‘Jack, it’s fine,’ the president said, according to Gene Sperling, Obama’s economics adviser, who witnessed the exchange. ‘I trust your values. I trust your judgment on this.’
Appointment to the Treasury secretary is above else a testament to Obama’s appreciation of Lew’s skills and values. But it is also an opportunity for Jews in Israel and abroad to kvel that a member of the tribe has climbed to such an influential position in the US.
This is especially true in the case of Lew, a man proud of his Jewish roots and unabashedly committed to his rich tradition.