At Home In the House

by | in Business & Politics

Senior Legislative Aide Zahava Goldman Brings Her Talents to Rep. Henry Waxman’s Office

Health care reform, economic sanctions, unemployment benefits, bailouts . . . the daily headlines trumpet the accomplishments of our country’s lawmaking bodies. What is less apparent, however, to the casual headline-scanner is that behind these developments there’s a small army of hardworking Congressional staffers, those dedicated to making a difference in people’s lives.

“I have a passion for tikkun olam,” says Zahava Goldman, thirty-four, who has served as a legislative aide to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) for the past eleven years. “I was drawn into political life because I realized there was so much I could accomplish.”

Goldman’s activism began early—seventh grade, to be precise. “I was raised in the Soviet Jewry movement,” she says. “For me, that was political activism. I went on my first march when I was twelve, and in high school I was a volunteer tutor and helped feed the homeless.” Her father, Rabbi Marvin Goldman, was a rabbi in Philadelphia and served as president of the Philadelphia Board of Rabbis. As a child, Goldman saw the mayor come to her house, while local Congressmen and City Councilmen often spoke in the shul where her father served as rabbi.

“My father couldn’t be partisan, given his job,” Goldman says, “but he emphasized the importance of being politically aware.” Goldman’s mother, Judy, was a teacher and social worker who helped resettle Russian Jews and navigate the complex maze of government-assistance programs. “Our family was always involved with public service, and Zahava always championed the underdog,” says Goldman’s brother, Yossi. “We all have a strong streak of American patriotism. Our grandparents survived the Holocaust and came to the US with their three children, and rebuilt their lives. They were people who had American flags in their home and were proud to pay taxes—they always felt deeply grateful to this country.”

Between being a rabbi’s daughter and attending Jewish day schools in Philadelphia, Goldman grew up firmly rooted in Jewish values. Following her graduation from high school, she spent a year studying Torah at Midreshet Lindenbaum Seminary in Jerusalem before attending Barnard College in New York City.

In 1996, during her sophomore year at Barnard, Goldman decided to apply to the Washington internship program run by the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs (IPA). She was assigned to the office of Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida. One of the more memorable moments during that internship, she says, was when the Congressman offered her a seat in the House gallery to hear Prime Minister Netanyahu address a joint session of Congress.

Zahava Goldman and Ohad Cohen, commercial attache at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, at a recent even in Washington.

That summer left Goldman bitten by the politics bug. The following fall found Goldman working as a legislative intern for Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), writing letters and focusing on immigration and quality-of-life issues. This was followed by internships in media and public affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York and at Edelman Public Relations Worldwide. After completing an MA in international and public affairs at Columbia University, she grabbed the opportunity to be a Congressional aide. “It’s not so easy to get a job on the Hill,” Goldman remarks.

Rep. Henry Waxman is best known for his work as the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and as one of the authors of the Waxman-Hatch bill, which brought generic drugs to the market. Waxman is the most senior Jewish member of Congress, with thirty-six years of service.

“Congressman Waxman is terrific,” Goldman says. “There are people who have been working in his office for thirty years.” While not Orthodox himself, Waxman is a regular synagogue attendee and leaves the office early on Friday afternoons.

“My first assignment for the Congressman was to help draft a response to a bill that came before a Congressional committee,” Goldman remembers. The bill, introduced by Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-ID), proposed instituting a kind of Day of Atonement [a day of solemn prayer and fasting] in response to the many instances of gun violence that had plagued the nation that year (1999). Goldman remembers Rep. Waxman calling her into his office and saying, “Zahava! Go look up the haftarah of Yom Kippur for me!” Waxman then chose to quote verses from Isaiah that speak of the futility of people fasting, from God’s point of view, when they do little to help the poor and downtrodden.

“The debate was an eye-opener for me,” Goldman says. “It centered on whether it’s permissible to include religious-type rituals in secular government. Because of the US separation of church and state, the bill was deemed inappropriate.”

Goldman remembers Rep. Waxman calling her into his office and saying, “Zahava! Go look up the haftarah of Yom Kippur for me!”

Jewish issues are always a high priority in Congressman Waxman’s office. “There’s no formal Jewish caucus in Congress, but the Jewish members will come together on Israeli-US issues,” she says.

She has coordinated the Congressman’s work as a founding co-chair of the Democratic Israel Working Group, as co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Taskforce on Anti-Semitism, and as a member of the US Holocaust Museum’s Memorial Council. As part of her informal duties, she also coordinates meetings between Jewish members of Congress and visiting Israeli dignitaries, including Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu. “Because of my name, these guests always think I’m Israeli,” Goldman laughs, “and I have to warn them that I understand Hebrew better than I speak it!”

But the most significant VIP she has met through her job was a young lawyer named Michael Hurwitz. They met in a most unlikely venue for two young Jews: a briefing about Saudi Arabia. They married in 2003. The couple set up a home in Silver Spring, Maryland, where they belong to Congregation Ohev Shalom, an OU-member shul and a good choice for political types. “The shul is technically in DC,” Goldman says, “just one block into Maryland. People call it the ‘National Synagogue.’” Being shomer Shabbat has not, thus far, been an obstacle in her profession. “Here in the cradle of American politics, there is a deep respect for religion, with forums for people of all religions,” she says. “I set firm parameters, letting people know when I am not available, in the same way that people who are in the business world work around their religious schedules. There are Congressmen who stay late for votes on Fridays and walk home—Senator Lieberman is known for that— but I’ve never been put in that kind of position. I don’t go abroad much, because it would get very complicated between [keeping] Shabbat and finding kosher food.” She laughs. “Finding food is a big challenge here on the Hill! Most of us just brown-bag it every day.”

Life on the Hill has its tense moments—as when the flotilla incident happened in Israel last summer, while Congress was in recess. “Foreign policy never sleeps,” Goldman says. “Congressman Waxman was away, and we had to reach him overseas.” It also has frustrating moments: “The Congressman was one of the architects of the health care bill,” Goldman relates, “and so it was really frustrating when the Senate held it up.” There are also moments of fun, like meeting groups of high school students who come to see the government in action; and inspirational moments, as when Goldman left her office on May 15, 2005 and walked to the Israel rally, encountering staffers, constituents and friends amidst a sea of thousands of fellow Jews.

Goldman claims to have no philosophical differences with her boss. “I was always a Democrat,” she says. “There was no soul-searching there. And Congressman Waxman is an inspiration to me in the way he uses government to help people.”

Goldman is not interested in running for public office. “To be a Congressman, you need to be a generalist who covers many areas simultaneously. I prefer to remain a specialist, investigating specific issues. My job is to be Congressman Waxman’s eyes and ears on issues he’s interested in, but has no time to focus on legislatively.”

Nowadays, Goldman says her biggest challenges have little to do with policy or with her unique position as an Orthodox Jewish woman working on the Hill.
“I have a four-year-old daughter, Libby, and a two-year-old son, Nathaniel,” she says, with a Jewish mother’s unabashed pride. “I’m lucky in that the House of Representatives daycare is only a block and a half away. But sometimes the House only begins to vote around 6:30 in the evening, right about the time when I need to leave and start being a Mommy. Thank God for Blackberrys!”

Goldman’s enthusiasm and sincerity garner her as much praise as the nuts-and-bolts policy work she does. “Everybody Zahava works with loves her,” states her brother Yossi. “Her job isn’t only about tikkun olam, about making the world a better place. By being such a wonderful Jewish person who is identifiably Orthodox, she [also] creates a tremendous Kiddush Hashem.”

Barbara Bensoussan has worked as a university instructor and a social worker, and currently writes for Jewish newspapers and magazines. Her most recent novel is A New Song (Southfield, Michigan, 2007).

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2010.

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