It is not every day that you pull up to a Kosher restaurant in Boca Raton and discover two black SUV’s with tinted windows in the parking lot and Secret Service agents at the entrance. At first, I thought they were there to protect Yocheved and me on our dinner date and help us get some private time together without interruptions. But then I realized that sitting in the back corner, quietly and unobtrusively eating his meal, was Jack Lew, the White House Chief of Staff. Mr. Lew was in town for a couple of days of meetings and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he sought out a Kosher establishment for dinner, as he is an observant Jew.
The hour was late and I knew he was leaving Florida the next day. We had met previously and, after reintroducing myself, I asked a somewhat brazen question: ”Did he have ten minutes to meet with our teens – anytime, anywhere?” The Krasnas were there too, and after I introduced them to Mr. Lew, they joined me in singing the praises of our BRS Pro-Israel Teen Advocacy group, under the inspired leadership of Rabbi Pilichowski. Mr. Lew told me that it was unlikely, but took my card just in case something would change.
Imagine my surprise when after 11 p.m. an email arrived saying he had shuffled somethings around in his schedule and would be at BRS at 9:15 a.m. to meet with the students for 10 minutes. (Oh, and by the way, the Secret Service would be scoping out the BRS campus in the middle of the night.) Rabbi Pilichowski worked his magic, and less than nine hours later, more than 20 teens had an off-the-record meeting with the White House Chief of Staff in the Rand Sanctuary of the Boca Raton Synagogue.
Mr. Lew did not take advantage of this opportunity to campaign for or heap praise on the president and his administration. His words were neither partisan nor oriented to a particular philosophy or party. Instead, he spoke to the teens about something that every observant Jewish teenager – and adult, for that matter – should hear. His message was simple, and yet profound. If you respect your religion, your heritage, and your tradition, others will as well. If you carry yourself with dignity and class, it will reflect well on your belief system, and others will thereby honor your religious boundaries.
He continued by telling the students that at every stage of his career, whether it was during his work for Speaker Tip O’Neal, as part of the Clinton Administration or now, working directly for President Obama, his commitment to Shabbos, Kashrus, and Halacha never got in the way or held him back from advancing professionally. In fact, knowing how important Shabbos is to Mr. Lew, the President will often turn to him on a Friday afternoon and say, “Shouldn’t you be heading out now to make it home before sundown?”
The Chief of Staff’s second message was as important as his first. Just because you are an observant Jew, don’t feel entitled or act in a way that will cause others to be resentful of your lifestyle. If you need to be inaccessible on Saturdays, be the first to volunteer when something needs to be done on a Sunday. If you are not available on Jewish holidays, go out of your way to cover December 25th through New Year’s. “Recognize,” said Mr. Lew, “every time you need to be off, someone else needs to cover for you and get your work done. Don’t take that lightly and don’t feel entitled.”
He closed by sharing an observation that should be moving no matter what party you affiliate with or how much you may agree or disagree with the current administration. Jack Lew’s father escaped from a small town in Eastern Europe that had no survivors from among those who remained after the Nazis took it over. He came to America barely speaking English and struggling to cling to his tradition and heritage. Mr. Lew described to the teens that just one generation ago his father had to run for his life simply because he was a Jew. Now, one generation later, he sits with the President of the United States in the Oval Office every day as an Orthodox Jew. This is a land of freedom, blessing and opportunity; never take it for granted.
The Chief of Staff’s final remarks resonated deeply for me because they were exactly what I felt on my two recent visits to the White House. In May, Yocheved and I were privileged to attend the Jewish Heritage Month reception in the East Wing of the White House. As we entered the reception together with Jewish leaders from across the country, all I could think of were the centuries and millennia that Jews were denied access to those who ruled over them. Instead of graciously being invited to a seat at the table, our ancestors were kicked out the door of many of the countries in which they lived. And now Yocheved, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and I, the grandson of immigrants who fled after Kristallnacht, were invited to spend a few hours in the most powerful building in the world to celebrate Jewish contributions to this great country. As if that wasn’t enough, signs were displayed announcing that the food was “Glatt Kosher, Chassidishe Shechita, Pas Yisroel and all wine was Mevushal.” We were provided the Red Room to daven Mincha, as the Secret Service protected our prayers from being disturbed by noisy people gathering nearby.
Only a week after attending the Jewish Heritage Month reception, I was truly humbled to be invited among a group of Jewish leaders to a meeting in the West Wing under the auspices of the Orthodox Union. The meeting was intended to be with Jack Lew, though the president ended up joining us for the majority of the conversation. That day, too, I was overwhelmed by a sense of amazement and gratitude that we live in such an extraordinary time that the Orthodox Jewish community is considered worthy and significant enough to be hosted by the President in the White House. One can only wonder what might have been different if the American Jewish community had such access to FDR during the Holocaust and how many Jewish lives might have been saved?
Mr. Lew only had time for one question, and our students asked what is front and center on most of our minds: Will America back Israel if she attacks Iran? The Chief of Staff spent 2 minutes answering the question. But to be honest, it was his early remarks that left the more powerful impression on our teenagers, and I believe it will impact them for years to come.
In a time of heightened partisanship, particularly as we approach the election, one thing we can all agree on is that we live in historic times for the American Jewish community. Hakaras ha’tov, gratitude and appreciation, or more literally, recognizing the good, is a bipartisan value and should transcend politics. As Orthodox Jews, we in particular must be grateful for the opportunities afforded to us in this country every single day, opportunities many of our ancestors only dreamt of. We must not take them for granted and we should feel obligated to use them fully to create a Kiddush Hashem everywhere that we go. White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew is doing it, and so should we.