For 30 years, Hank Sheinkopf has been offering his advice to candidates and his analysis of the political landscape to the media. Now, he’s also fielding questions about halacha and offering comfort to the spiritually afflicted – as a newly ordained Orthodox rabbi.
Rabbi Sheinkopf was granted smicha on July 5 from Rabbi Yitzchak Yehuda Yaroslavsky of Kfar Chabad, the Lubavitch enclave in Israel. Since the rabbi speaks no English, Sheinkopf completed his exam in Hebrew, which he has been studying at home on the Upper West Side.
“I studied very hard,” said the consultant, 61, who is perhaps the most quoted pundit in the city, and has worked on the 2001 mayoral campaign of former Public Advocate Mark Green, the 1998 attorney general bid of Eliot Spitzer and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2009 re-election campaign, among many others. “I had to learn four portions of the Shulchan Orach [code of Jewish law].”
Sheinkopf became Orthodox 18 years ago before the birth of his son, Isaac. He and his wife, Dr. Debra Budick, also have a 15-year-old daughter, Sarah. He said he pursued smicha because of his sense of being blessed with a successful life after a rough start, living in a poor and volatile home in the South Bronx, the son of teenage parents, and later in an upstate orphanage. During the unhappiest times of his childhood, he often dreamed of being a rabbi.
He first broke into politics in 1969, working on the mayoral campaign of Herman Badillo, opening the firm that is now Sheinkopf Communications in 1981. Along the way he worked as a cop, a taxi driver, a restaurant worker and a bounty hunter.
“It is by dint of God that I have this kind of life today,” he said. “Otherwise it doesn’t make any sense.”
A member of The Jewish Center of the Upper West Side who also attends services at the Chabad on W. 97th Street, Sheinkof said he has already fielded some shaylot, or halachic inquiries from friends and acquaintances and wants to be available to comfort those facing life’s difficulties, hoping his own triumph over adversity will inspire others. “I tell people that sometimes God puts things in front of you that you have to overcome, because God put them there so you can overcome them,” he said.
He sees a similarity between his two vocations. "I’m a warrior, that’s the job I’ve chosen," Sheinkopf said. "And a rabbi has to fight for what he believes in."
Rabbi Shlomo Kugel, director of the West Side Chabad where Sheinkopf studied with Rabbi Yisroel Fried, said he was inspired by the student’s commitment. "It was remarkable to watch him do this, for such a busy person to be able to focus on this," said Rabbi Kugel. "He really put in the work and studied early in the morning and late at night. People have told me they are considering doing it, too, because of him.’
The new rabbi has no immediate plans to give up political consulting, however. “I’ve been at this a long time,” said Sheinkopf. “I like to think I set the standard for some people. I’m a true consultant, I don’t just call myself one. I’ve worked all over the world.” He says he once gave up a campaign worth several million dollars in the Midwest because he refused to be available on Saturdays.
With smicha under his belt, Sheinkopf is now focusing on his doctoral dissertation in political science at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. The paper is a study of the Catholic Church. “My interest is in religion and power, which makes some sense,” he said.