“But can he chant the Haftorah?”
So my late father inquired when I shared with him that Jack Lew, then the chief of staff in the Obama White House, was an active member of the congregation where I was blessed to serve as rabbi.
Much has been said and written about Jack’s political views since President Biden nominated him to become US Ambassador to Israel. Now that he has assumed this role, I feel inspired to share some words about Jack the person, whom I’ve been blessed to know close up for many years. With Israel at war, this aspect of Jack is especially important as families of American hostages and Americans slaughtered by Hamas will need the personal attention that Jack is uniquely gifted to give.
In a word, Jack is the paragon of the prophetic mandate that we “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the Lord.”
Walking into synagogue on a Shabbat morning, Jack was often stopped by Reb Yankel, a senior member of the shul. Jack would listen respectfully, lovingly to him. My wife Toby would remark, “Yesterday Jack was conversing with President Obama; on this Shabbat, he was listening just as intently to Reb Yankel.”
And Reb Yankel, after speaking to Jack, would whisper in my ear, ‘I just told him how to run the country, un er hut mir zeier gut ausgehert – and he heard me out very well.’
On one Yom Kippur, as our services, led by the soulful Dr. Elli Kranzler, continued into the late afternoon, I saw Jack sitting, arm around Reb Yosef, a Holocaust survivor, as the sun set through the synagogue’s glorious big windows. For me, that’s the test of a true leader – are you there not only for the public at large, but for individuals, especially those too often forgotten. This is Jack Lew – a person whose ethical integrity and concern not only for the powerful but the most vulnerable, know no bounds.
Jack cares deeply about America, and, in the same breath, cares deeply about the Jewish people and Israel. Rarely reported was his invaluable efforts in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry. It was Jack, already working on the Hill, who escorted former refuseniks and former Prisoners of Zion through the labyrinth halls of Congress, introducing them to Representatives and Senators.
Jack was the go-to person, giving indispensable help to Avital Sharansky, as she campaigned for the freedom of her imprisoned husband Natan – egregiously accused by the Soviets of spying for the United States.
When Natan Sharansky conceived the idea of bringing hundreds of thousands of people to Washington to demand freedom for all of Soviet Jewry, it was Jack, who, with little fanfare, accompanied Natan from city to city, rallying the troops to make the trip to the nation’s capital. The gathering of so many people who traveled great distances – raising a voice of Jewish conscience, of moral conscience – was unprecedented. Jack deserves much of the credit.
Whatever one’s politics, whether agreeing or disagreeing with every position Jack has taken on the international scene, one point is very clear: Jack is a great ohev Yisrael, a person who cares deeply for Israel, for its well-being as a Jewish, democratic state. For Jack, Israel is not separate from his Jewish identity; it is central to his consciousness.
I’ve been in the rabbinate for over five decades; the rabbinate is not only my vocation but my avocation. It is a calling; a calling to do all one can to inspire, to light the fire in the soul of others, a reminder that we have potential to make a difference and to bring light to darkness.
As we rabbis try to inspire, we, in turn, need to be inspired. In no small measure, we live and breathe off those who lift us to higher levels. This is what Jack means to me and so many others. As a family person, as a Jew, as an American, he is an inspiration…the real deal.
And so, my father – who grew up in the town of Oswiecim that later became Auschwitz – was so very proud of Jack. So proud, that every time I visited him in his modest Jerusalem apartment, he presented me with piles of Jack Lew articles cut out from newspapers.
As Jack begins his tenure during these painfully difficult times, my mind flashes back to when my father asked me about Jack’s synagogue skills, I’ll forever remember his beatific smile when I responded, “Abba, yes, Jack can read a wonderful haftorah – and he’s even a better ba’al tefillah.”
In these impossible days, may our prayers ascend, higher and higher – forever heard and accepted.