American presidents have made outreach to the Jewish community a priority ever since George Washington's postinaugural visit to Rhode Island's historic Touro Synagogue. So why did it take almost 200 years for a president to officially name a Jewish outreach director? We can't go back two centuries to ask, but we can go back the last three decades, discovering the most memorable interactions between White House Jewish liaisons and their presidential bosses. We started with Jarrod Bernstein, director of Jewish outreach for the Obama administration, who invited us to the White House to share his thoughts and concerns
"The Jewish community is a mile wide," says Jarrod Bernstein, who on any given day navigates a rocky road to steer clear of what sometimes looks like a collision course between the diverse and disparate viewpoints of Jewish groups ranging from the left-wing J Street to center-right Orthodox organizations.
As the Obama administration's director of Jewish outreach, Bernstein's job is not to drive down a one-way street. While faithfully conveying the president's positions on Israel and domestic issues of Jewish interest, he keeps an open ear to comments from the Jewish community, which he says is well-received at the highest levels.
"Anytime you get feedback from a community, positive or negative, it's a good thing. The higher-ups here understand and appreciate that," says Bernstein. "You want to have feedback because it shows people are interested and that's a vital part of our democracy. Some of the issues we face in this country are very tough and there is merit to more than one side."
When disagreements arise — and they do — he strives to handle them with a civility worthy of both the Jewish community and the White House. "Unfortunately the atmospherics out there are not always conducive to that, but we have a responsibility to work on that every single day."
Our meeting took place in one of the ornately decorated offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building just west of the White House. The office lighting was muted, with just enough natural light streaming in through tall windows draped with maroon-flowered curtains, color-coordinated perfectly with the gold-painted walls.
Bernstein's bearing exudes a coexistence of geniality and a let's-get-down-to-business approach. These vital personality characteristics hold him in good stead in his dealings with the People of the Book, who are sometimes characterized by that same book as stiff-necked and stubborn.
Getting Out of Town
Obama tapped Bernstein for the position following his most recent stint as deputy assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security. Officially, Bernstein sits three steps away from the president. He reports to Jon Carson, director of the White House's Office of Public Engagement, who in turn reports directly to Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to the president. Bernstein does speak to the president and to Jack Lew, Obama's recently appointed Orthodox chief of staff, on a regular basis.
"We don't want to have silos in this White House, so I also work directly with the national security staff and talk routinely with the chief of staff and the deputy national security advisor, Denis McDonough, about issues of concern that I'm hearing from the community. That could be from the OU, the Conference of Presidents, the Agudah, or it could be from different ends of the chareidi community as well."
Before coming to Washington, Bernstein was deputy commissioner in New York City's offices of federal and community affairs under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Born in Merrick, Long Island, to a Conservative family, Bernstein studied at Johns Hopkins University, Fordham University School of Law, and Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
There is no such thing as a routine day at the White House. Earlier in the day, Bernstein had attended a meeting where he was asked to weigh in on which segments of the Jewish community should be represented at a conference with the Domestic Policy Council on child and earned income tax credit issues.
"I work specifically for the taxpayers on government policies and initiatives," said Bernstein. "I don't look at a list of donors, and I don't look at opinion polls. That's not my job."
After our interview, he left to meet members of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, who arrived for an appointment with senior Middle East staff members. His afternoon would consist of catching up on phone calls from Jewish leaders nationwide and planning his next out-of-town trip, such as his recent visit to Baltimore, where Bernstein joined a roundtable with day school, yeshivah, and rabbinical school administrators to discuss issues of concern, including Pell grants and college education.
"A significant challenge that this administration takes very seriously is getting out of Washington and into the rest of the country, seeing and hearing what people are thinking; seeing what policies are working and what aren't working; and getting some on-the-ground feedback, not just feedback from the people who make the trip to Washington," said Bernstein.
Jews only number about 2% of the US population, but Bernstein says that's not the calculus the White House considers when it comes to lending an ear to Jewish concerns.
"Since the nation's founding, the Jewish community in the United States has been a vocal contributor to the national conversation on a number of issues. We can go back to George Washington's visit to Touro synagogue after his inauguration, all the way up to the civil rights movement and to Jewish contributions in art, culture, and science, the environment and foreign policy. We have always been active on a number of issues, across the board, so I think that is not lost on anybody in this White House."
The job of Jewish liaison is often a stepping stone to other opportunities that open up within the White House. Bernstein is Obama's third Jewish liaison. Susan Sher was the first, and she later became Michelle Obama's chief of staff. Danielle Borrin, currently associate director of the Office of Public Engagement, preceded Bernstein.
George W. Bush had seven Jewish liaisons in his eight years in office, including Noam Neusner, who multitasked as Bush's principal economic and domestic policy speechwriter. It's a high-stress position, says Neusner, but one that he would recommend applying for.
"It's a wonderful opportunity. But you have to love the Jewish community, care deeply about its issues, and look forward to hearing about fresh issues all the time," said Neusner, who now runs 30-Point Strategies, a strategic communications firm. "As a community the Jews are intense and intensely involved in public policy. It probably served the community quite well to have a fresh face every so often. The most important thing is to keep the door open to all Jewish groups, regardless of ideology and relative political power."
Neusner served in 2004, when Bush was running for reelection and the president was quietly working under the radar screen to help Jews and other ethnic minorities to leave Iran safely. "That was never in the headlines," said Neusner. When asked how many Jews left, he replied: "It's not important how many Jews left. What's important is that they were able to leave."
Tevi Troy, currently a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and a special advisor to the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, held the position before Neusner.
"It is a large and significant responsibility and you have to measure everything you say," says Troy, an Orthodox Jew. "Jews always have to be careful about what we say, but speaking for yourself is much different than speaking for the White House. But I love this country and I'm a proud Jew, and I wanted to give back what I could to the Jewish People."
A Jewish outreach director doesn't get much respite from phone calls, e-mails, and requests for meetings. "Everyone thinks they're your friend and everyone wants something," says Troy, who only learned the full extent of it at a White House holiday party. "Some women I didn't recognize came up to me after seeing my name badge and said, 'So you're Tevi Troy? We're the White House operators, and you get so many phone calls!'"
No News Is Good News
Sometimes those calls are complaints about a president's policy, and presidential advisors have to field their share of them. So when one of them hears a word of gratitude from their boss after a day of dealing with the public, it is greatly appreciated.
Noam Neusner recalls a conversation he had with Andrew Card, Bush's chief of staff. "Andy was sitting next to me and we were talking about speechwriting," says Neusner. "He asked me what I thought about my work. I told him one of the reasons I enjoy it is because I get immediate feedback, and Andy said, 'Oh, yes, just today the president said he really likes the work that Noam Neusner is doing for the staff.'
"President Bush wasn't someone who sat around and handed out compliments gratuitously," added Neusner, "but if you weren't doing your job you heard about it.
"When it came to outreach, he was actually terrific. Put him in a room with any 20 people in the community and he would do a great job of winning them over. He was authentic; he cared about Jews and the history of the Jews, and was profoundly affected by his visit to Auschwitz."
Neusner says that Bush understood that he and the Jewish community were both focused and aligned on a broad range of issues, such as Israel, Homeland Security, and the war on terror.
"I wrote an article in December 2008, at a time when his standing with the country was relatively low. I wrote it with a very clear intent of who this man was. When I was his liaison four years earlier I got to see that up close. He was exactly as strong a friend of the Jewish community as he is perceived today."
Neusner adds that there were some light moments in the Bush White House.
"We developed a tradition that when a new Jewish liaison came aboard, we would take out a bottle of Slivovitz and toast both the incoming guy and the outgoing guy."
Wasn't president Bush known for being a teetotaler?
"They served beer and wine at the White House parties, including the Chanukah parties. The president didn't impose his personal habits on anyone else."