A few years ago, Jack Lew, an unassuming back bencher at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale who had served in two Democratic administrations in Washington, was invited to speak at the Modern Orthodox congregation in the Bronx.
In a speech that touched on his thoughts as an observant Jew in politics, he discussed the controversy over Jonathan Pollard, the Navy intelligence analyst who has served a life sentence since 1987 for spying for Israel.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, senior spiritual leader of the synagogue, is a leading advocate on behalf of clemency for Pollard, and at the time of Lew’s speech, nearly all of the mainstream Jewish organizations were pushing hard for clemency of Pollard.
Most people in attendance probably expected Lew, given the venue, to deliver what had become the party line on Pollard. But instead, he came out “very strongly” against Pollard’s early release from prison, Dan Perla, a former HIR president who attended the speech, told The Jewish Week. “It spoke volumes about his candor,” Perla said.
Lew, director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, a Cabinet-level position, was appointed President Barack Obama’s new chief of staff on Monday. Lew replaces William Daley, who is returning to Chicago.
Lew, 56, was chosen for his long years in government, his reputation as a skilled multi-tasker and his conciliatory personal style. As President Obama faces a tough re-election fight, Lew is seen as a steady hand who can help navigate what will likely be a trying year.
“Jack Lew is the real deal — in a world of politics where people are so full of themselves, he is the exact opposite,” Rabbi Weiss told The Jewish Week. Lew “took a very strong position” on Pollard, “but with a great deal of respect,” the rabbi said.
Lew, who also belongs to an Orthodox synagogue in Potomac, Md., will be the first Orthodox Jew to serve as a U.S. president’s chief of staff. Ken Duberstein, a Brooklyn-born attorney, was the first Jewish presidential chief of staff, serving President Ronald Reagan in that post from 1988-89.
According to Haaretz, Lew’s son studied in a yeshiva in Israel, and Lew “has developed a close working relationship with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, and has met several times with Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.”
In 1992-93 he served as executive director of the Center for Middle East Research, a centrist pro-peace think tank based in Washington.
He was a top budget cruncher for President Bill Clinton before reprising the job for Obama. Jewish officials, according to a report in JTA, were offering a sigh of relief this week for a subsidiary reason: Their who-we-gonna-call pleas were answered.
Since Dennis Ross, Obama’s top Iran adviser, announced his departure late last year, community officials wondered who was left to call in a White House that has hemorrhaged top Jews over the last year or so. Lew is considered close to the Jewish community and is a go-to person for Jewish events in the capital.
“The reports that there’s no one to talk to have always been exaggerated,” Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told JTA.
Obama launched his administration with a strong contingent of Jewish advisers: In addition to Ross, David Axelrod was his top political adviser, Rahm Emanuel his chief of staff and Daniel Shapiro handled the Middle East desk at the National Security Council.
But Emanuel quit in late 2010 to run for Chicago mayor, Axelrod left soon after to help run Obama’s re-election campaign and Shapiro is now in Tel Aviv as ambassador.
The Obama administration clearly wanted to push the Jewish angle of Lew’s appointment; Shapiro tweeted the news in Hebrew to his followers, according to JTA. Israeli ambassadors don’t usually make a big deal of the appointment of a White House chief of staff.
Lew has become something of a go-to Obama administration speaker and guest for the organized Jewish community, particularly among Orthodox Jews. Most recently, he lit the “national menorah,” the giant chanukiyah on the National Mall under the aegis of American Friends of Lubavitch.
“As an American Jew, I can’t think of anyone who has a deeper commitment to the United States as well as his own Jewish identity at the same time,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who heads the Chabad group, noting that Lew occasionally stops by for Shabbat services. “His appointment obviously gives the White House an envoy to the Jewish community who is eloquent, respected, even beloved across the Jewish spectrum. That’s probably an added bonus rather than the core qualification.”
Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, where Lew served as a board member from 2004-06, called him “a very committed Jew.”
“I’m impressed by his intellect and his commitment. It’s a Kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God’s name] that he has been able to maintain his degree of Jewish observance,” Miller told The Jewish Week.
Lew is “a mensch — he’s very modest,” Perla of the Hebrew Institute said. A “semi-regular” worshipper at the congregation’s Shabbat services, when White House assignments don’t require his presence in Washington over the weekend, “he sits quietly towards the back of the shul,” Perla said. “If you didn’t know how influential he is, you’d never know it from him.”
Lew is known to be pro-Israel, but Perla said Lew has not been outspoken in HIR about his views on Israel or the Middle East peace process. “My sense is that he’s a moderate … a centrist.”
An open question is how much harder it will now be for Lew to balance family and Shabbat observance in his new role. He stays close to his daughter, Shoshana, who works at the Obama administration’s Council on Environmental Quality, but his wife and son remain in Riverdale, where they are active in HIR.
His previous stints — in addition to the OMB post, he was also a deputy secretary of state under Obama — involved managing a 9-5, Monday-to-Friday bureaucracy. Running the White House means dealing with crises that have a bad habit of happening on weekends.
“It’s a reflection of this administration’s comfort with him and his being Jewish,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “This is a job that is 24/7 — but if there’s respect, it works.”
JTA contributed to this report.