The Hallmarks of Jewish Leadership: Jack Lew's Nomination for U.S. Ambassador to Israel
President Joe Biden nominated former U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew last Tuesday, September 5, 2023 to serve as ambassador to Israel. Lew, 68, served as treasury secretary between 2013 and 2017. He was also the White House budget director and later chief of staff during the Obama administration and budget director during the Clinton administration. His 2013 U.S. Treasury Secretary appointment made him the highest-ranking Orthodox Jew in the history of the U.S. government and the first Orthodox Jewish cabinet member.
News of his nomination for U.S. ambassador to Israel has received much praise from D.C. politicians, friends, and acquaintances. Among them are Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) and the movement’s main government relations official in Washington, who has been friends with Lew for 30 years.
An August 15, 2023 JNS article by Bradley Martin quotes Shemtov, saying “Secretary Lew has many positive attributes. Perhaps most important… is his unique ability not only to be beloved by those who agree with him but enjoy the respect of those who might not.” He said that Lew wraps strength inside a gentle approach, “Jack is sharply focused but his soft demeanor accompanying that focus has allowed him to get many things done that others could only dream of,” he said in a different interview.
Also quoted in the JNS article was Rabbi Ezra Friedlander, founder and CEO of The Friedlander Group, a self-described boutique political firm, based in New York City, and specializing in government advocacy, public & media relations, and political event management. Friedlander met Lew during the Clinton administration and was struck by his “humble demeanor and his ability to bring people together,” he told JNS. “I believe the role of ambassador will suit him quite well.”
In 2012, Green Road Synagogue, in the Cleveland suburb of Beachwood, hosted a debate on Israel policy between Jack Lew and Tevi Troy, both Orthodox Jews who had reached the highest precincts of government — Lew as President Obama’s chief of staff, and Troy as the deputy health secretary during the last Bush administration. The debate was hosted by the Orthodox Union and moderated by their Washington director, Nathan Diament, who was quoted this week in a September 5 JTA article by Ron Kampeas, regarding Lew.
“He’s a very thoughtful person, and has always been open and accessible. He really knows the issues inside and out,” Diament said. “You’re not going to pull the wool over his eyes, which is generally a good thing. But it also means you can come in and make the right kinds of arguments based on the facts and based on the situation, hopefully, you have a chance at having him on your side.”
Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, praised Lew as a “true statesman.”
Jewish Republican and former House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, has also spoken highly of Lew, telling Politico in 2011 that “he was always very polite and respectful in his tone and someone who I can tell is very committed to his principles.”
Kampeas also mentions in his article that Lew likes to advise young Orthodox Jews to consider public service, but he also counsels humility. “You can practice your faith openly, but don’t ever take it for granted,” Lew said in 2019 at a New York forum with Joe Lieberman, the Jewish former senator from Connecticut who was the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee in 2000,
According to the same JTA article, Lew was not the only Jewish candidate on the short list for the ambassadorship. Kathy Manning, who is a Democratic congresswoman from the state of North Carolina and a past president of the Jewish Federations of North America, would have been the first woman ever to hold the post. Other names floated include Robert Wexler, the former Florida Democratic congressman who now leads the Center for Middle East Peace and who was a close contender for the post in 2021, and Ted Deutch, who retired last year as a Florida Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives and is now the CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
Deutch issued a statement following the announcement about Lew’s nomination. “Jack Lew’s distinguished record of public service makes him an exceptional choice to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Israel.”
In fact, his distinguished record of public service has been reported in numerous publications over the last decade.
According to a story told in a 2013 Forward article written by Nathan Guttman, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg walked into a kosher restaurant in Boca Raton, Florida, spotted Lew, who was in town for a series of events for President Obama’s re-election campaign, and asked him to meet with a group of teenagers from his Orthodox synagogue, to which he agreed.
“He said we need to show people working with us that it is a privilege to work with an Orthodox Jew, not the other way around,” Goldberg recalled.
The same article quotes Ari Weiss, a close friend of Lew, who said, “The idea that you have the responsibility to help those who are less fortunate is something that resonated in Jack’s commitment both in the political attitude and in his religious approach.”
Weiss met Lew in the mid-1970s, when Lew first arrived in Washington. Both responded to an ad posted on the George Washington University Hillel House bulletin board seeking a kosher roommate. With time, Lew and Weiss, two young congressional staffers, began to host weekly Saturday minyans in their shared house on Nebraska Avenue in Northwest Washington.
After graduating from Harvard University, Lew returned to Washington. Weiss, already a senior staffer for legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill, brought Lew on board, where he took on domestic issues. Lew reflected on the mixture of faith and public service he began to shape in his years on O’Neill’s staff in December of 2012, when he received an honorary degree from Yeshiva University. At their annual dinner, he said the following:
“As an observant Jew, I honor the practices of my Jewish faith and the rights, credos and responsibilities it stands for. As a proud citizen, I believe in working to make sure that this is a world full of opportunity where you can achieve anything if you’re willing to work for it. And as a public servant, I believe that these values, both religious and secular, inform, inspire and elevate the impact that each of us has on our homes, community and the world.”
In a 2013 Tablet Magazine article written by Yair Rosenberg, Lew says, “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.”
A 2018 article in the Harvard Crimson reported that the 1978 alumnus of Harvard Law School spoke at his alma mater on how his Jewish background and beliefs have informed his political pursuits. “Seeking answers always occurs through the lens of the values that define who each of us is,” Lew said. Faith has the potential to be “an enormously positive influence” on American public policy and policymakers, he said. He argued public servants who successfully integrate their faith into their work can “reflect universal principles familiar across diverse beliefs.”