The first week Josh Kahn began working as the director of communications for Congressman Patrick McHenry (R-NC), a big story broke about an hour before he had to leave for Shabbat. “I was not really settled into my job,” says Kahn. “I barely had my BlackBerry working.” Nevertheless, he pulled things together quickly.
“I buckled down and wrote a press release. That was pretty much the only thing I could do,” he says. Leaving another staff member in charge, he raced out of the office, making it home just in time. “I hadn’t been working there long enough to know my commute well . . . Baruch Hashem, the Metro didn’t break down.”
While there’s an inherent tension between having a time-sensitive job and being a frum Jew, says Kahn, he is thrilled to be pursuing his passion for politics. Fortunately for Kahn, his employers have “been fantastic about chagim and Shabbat.” In fact, he chuckles, some of his colleagues have even pushed him out the door on Friday afternoons. “‘Hey, it’s getting late,’ they say. ‘You gotta go!’”
Kahn has had a seasoned and varied career in politics. Only twenty-eight years old, he has quite an impressive resume. A talented communications and media strategist, Kahn has served as political director at Intrepid Media, a nationally recognized political consulting firm, where he produced television ads for competitive political campaigns. Prior to that, he served as communications director for the Washington State Republican Party and for the American Family Business Institute. He also worked for many prominent Republican politicians, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA); Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna and Washington State GOP Chairman Luke Esser.
An Emerging Political Identity
How has Kahn managed to carve out such a successful career before turning thirty? Politics was a part of the fabric of his life growing up. His parents, Robert and Cathy, run a public relations firm, and are often in touch with political figures in their work. When traveling to Washington, DC, from their home in Mercer Island, Washington State, Kahn and his family would always visit their Congressman. “Josh got used to the idea that this was just a natural thing to do,” his father explains.
“Even as a teen, Josh was interested in politics,” says Rabbi Yechezkel Kornfield of Congregation Shevet Achim, the shul Josh attended growing up. The OU-member shul has some very colorful political personalities of its own, including conservative radio host and political commentator Michael Medved; noted rabbi and best-selling author Daniel Lapin; and conservative writer David Klinghoffer.
Similar to his peers, Kahn was a liberal when he was young, though he claims he never bought into the “moral relativism implicit in liberal thought.” In high school, however, his political sensibilities began to change. “I started reading the newspaper and found myself agreeing with . . . what the Republicans were saying,” he says.
Being different never really bothered Kahn, who became a Republican—the only one in his family—during his sophomore year of high school. “I’m very comfortable . . . whatever people around me think has nothing to do with the way I think,” he says.
Known as a clear thinker and a superb writer, Kahn has written for the Economist, the New Republic, the Atlantic and other publications. “It is very difficult to find good press people on Capitol Hill,” says Maury Litwack, deputy director, public affairs at the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs (IPA). “Josh is of one of the best at whittling down complicated legislation and policy decisions into digestible morsels which make sense to the public.”
When the OU was working on a Congressional resolution to recognize February as North American Inclusion Month (NAIM), to help raise awareness about individuals with disabilities, Rep. McHenry was the lead Republican on the House floor to discuss and present the bill. “Josh clearly worked with the Congressman on his statements and speeches regarding the issue and did it in a way where the Congressman’s support and intent were clearly heard,” says Litwack.
But Kahn not only communicates politics effectively. “Josh openly wore his yarmulke on the Hill,” says Litwack. “. . . which communicates an effective message: I’m a proud Jew interested in public service and in helping our great country.”
Indeed, putting on a kippa while working in the political arena was a conscious decision Kahn made after leaving DC to spend a year in Israel learning in a yeshivah. A frum friend of his who works in politics (and who wears a kippa himself) gave him some invaluable advice: If you wear a kippa, he said, you will have an easier time staying away from the social life that’s a part of the Hill culture. Wearing a kippa, his friend advised, is a good visual sign that you are not interested in hanging out at a bar after work. Kahn took his advice and has had only positive experiences since.
The Path to Orthodoxy
Born in Davis, California, Kahn moved with his family to Mercer Island when he was ten. He attended day school, where he developed an affinity for Orthodoxy. While Kahn’s family is not Orthodox, there were certain religious constants in his life, such as Friday night Shabbat dinners.
Kahn also grew up with a sense of Jewish pride. This conviction—of standing alone for one’s principles and one’s faith—was a message Kahn’s father reinforced in his son. Kahn recalls as a seven-year-old attending a game with his father between the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants. From Chicago, the elder Kahn is a huge Cubs fan. The two showed up in their Cubs outfits in the middle of a big playoff game. The Giants’ colors are orange and black while the Cubs’ are red and blue. Kahn’s father instructed him to look around the stadium. He complied, noting that there was a sea of black and orange everywhere, and every so often one could see but a speck of blue, connoting a Cubs fan. Kahn’s father turned to him and said, “Josh, this is what it’s like to be Jewish.”
At the University of Washington in Seattle, where Kahn earned a BA in history, he was heavily involved with “Huskies for Israel,” an organization supportive of Israel and the AIPAC lobby.
After completing his college freshman year in 2000, Kahn spent a summer participating in the IPA Internship Program, and was placed in the office of Eric Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in the House and the current House majority leader. Kahn describes himself very lucky to have worked for Cantor, whom he calls a “fantastic public servant and very much a credit to the Jewish community.”
While Kahn’s political identity was formed in his teens, his religious evolution took a little more time. Although he knew intellectually that he was headed for a more observant Jewish lifestyle, he wasn’t emotionally ready to make such a drastic life change. He finally made the leap in his mid-twenties, while working for Luke Esser in Washington State. Slowly, he began keeping kosher, and got an apartment within walking distance of the shul.
Subsequently, he moved to DC, where he felt he could find a richer Jewish life. He joined MesorahDC, a program geared for young Jewish professionals in the area, and began studying Torah with a partner assigned to him. His study partner happened to be a young observant woman; the two hit it off, but Kahn
knew he needed to learn more if he was going to live a serious frum life.
Putting his career on hold, he took a year off of work to study at Machon Shlomo, a yeshivah in Jerusalem designed for ba’alei teshuvah. Upon completing the year, Kahn returned to DC and met up again with his former tutor. While Kahn was seriously contemplating returning to Israel for another year of study, he decided against it—with good reason. The two soon married and now live in Atlanta, Georgia.
The Making of an Orthodox Conservative
Becoming fully observant has only strengthened Kahn’s political identity. “The Torah has a very conservative outlook,” he says, citing examples of where, in his view, conservatism and Judaism see eye to eye.
“A lot of people on the Left will talk about our responsibility to take care of the poor, which is in line with Torah values. But worrying about income inequality . . . and trying to bring wealthy people down, that’s not Torah. It’s not our job to reorder the way we see fairness in the universe.”
Similar to the Torah’s view of morality, conservatism, Kahn says, acknowledges that there is evil in the world that has to be eradicated. Those who embrace moral relativism, on the other hand, “are not so comfortable with this thought.”
While Kahn has little difficulty reconciling his Judaism and his political views, he does concede that there is a conflict when it comes to attitude. “Basically everyone in politics thinks that the ends justify the means,” he explains.
“There are very few people in the political world who can tell you what’s the problem with doing something wrong to achieve something good in the wider sense . . . the small things don’t matter, what matters is this big accomplishment. This is a very dangerous attitude,” says Kahn. “The purpose of our lives is to make the right decisions and do the right things. We have to trust that Hashem will take care of the outcome.”
One thing Kahn is deeply concerned about is the future of Jewish political clout. Positing that assimilation is at an all-time high and that many Orthodox people are apathetic toward politics, he fears that in the years to come there will be fewer and fewer Jews involved in the political arena.
“Unfortunately, we are coming to a point where non-observant Jews are losing even a tenuous grip to Judaism . . . [they no longer have] a tribal connection to Judaism,” says Kahn. This is why the Orthodox must get more involved, he insists.
“We won’t be able to rely on non-observant Jews to be members of AIPAC. Torah observant Jews need to be able to step up to the plate,” says Kahn. “We have to pick up slack for the generation of Jews who are feeling much less connected to even cultural Judaism.”
If anyone’s betting, the rising star among the yarmulke-wearers in the political arena could very well inspire more Orthodox Jews to enter the field. “I know Josh has a bright future ahead of him,” says Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna, Kahn’s former boss. “And it’s one I’ll be watching.”
Olivia Wiznitzer is pursuing her master’s in Bible at Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. She is associate program director at OU Alumni Connections.