Jared Kushner, son-in-law of President Trump, may be the most famous, and most-scrutinized, Orthodox Jew in the United States today.
Since the president’s inauguration two weeks ago, Kushner — graduate of a prominent Modern Orthodox day school in New Jersey, grandson of Holocaust survivors, active supporter of the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement, a senior adviser to Trump who may become involved in Middle East peace negotiations — has come under fire in some Orthodox circles. The charges: Kushner rode with his wife Ivanka in a car to Friday night post-inaugural events in Washington (with rabbinic dispensation, it is said, because of security concerns), attended an ecumenical prayer service in a D.C. church and apparently remained silent after the president issued a controversial statement last week about International Holocaust Remembrance Day that omitted any mention of Jews being the primary target of the Nazis.
The statement “was written with the help of someone who is both Jewish and the descendent of Holocaust survivors,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said. Many assumed he was alluding to Kushner, though press reports say it was written by Boris Epshteyn, a Russian Jewish immigrant serving as special assistant in the administration after working on the Trump campaign.
Still, Kushner’s critics have indulged in a chorus of so-called “frum-shaming,” keeping a watchful eye on him, eager to call out any perceived violation of Jewish law.
Kushner has emerged as one of his father-in-law’s closest confidantes and fiercest defenders, asserting that Trump is neither an anti-Semite nor a racist.
At 36, the publicity-shy scion of the wealthy Kushner real estate family is the subject of numerous media reports.
A “quiet millionaire with Donald Trump’s ear,” reported BBC. “Something of a mollifying influence upon his mercurial boss,” wrote Vanity Fair. “Someone who ‘enjoys a Rasputin-like power’ with Trump,” according to Cosmopolitan.
Now a prominent Orthodox rabbi is coming to Kushner’s defense — ironically, one with close ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, administrator of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division, calls Kushner “a genuine Modern Orthodox Jew … serious about his Judaism.”
The rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Englewood, N.J. and author of the 2013 “Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons of Faith and Leadership” (Sterling Ethos), was openly critical of Trump during the campaign, saying he lacked a “sense of morality.” But having known the Kushner family for three decades and worked “on many projects” with Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, the rabbi said Jared “listens, he absorbs information … he’s very even-tempered … the opposite of his father-in-law.”
In a letter to The Jewish Week, the rabbi described how Jared every year sends a $500 check before Passover to one of his former day school teachers “as a gesture of appreciation for what [he] felt he gained,” Rabbi Genack said.
In a similar vein, a recent JTA article described Jared Kushner’s generosity and spirit of cooperation at Harvard Chabad during his student days at the Ivy League school and in his post-graduation life. “It was most apparent in the first impression what kind of mensch this young man was,” JTA quotes Chabad Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi as saying. “When he saw importance in a project, he committed himself to it.”
Rabbi Genack compared the criticism of Kushner on halachic grounds to the carping about Joseph Lieberman, also an Orthodox Jew, during the former senator’s race for vice president with Al Gore in 2000. Lieberman was accused of “hydrating” on a fast day during the campaign.
The rabbi said such criticism is “ridiculous,” and that it is unfair for people in the public eye to be held to unreasonable standards.
Kushner’s visibility as an Orthodox Jew “sends a good message to the Jewish community,” Rabbi Genack said. “I think we should just take pride.”