This article originally appeared in Mishpacha magazine.
On Tuesday June 5, I had the great privilege of participating, along with other leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community, in a candid conversation at the White House with President Barack Obama and his Chief of Staff Jack Lew. Although you may have read about this meeting in the news, I would like to share my inside perspective of the event, which differs from some of the press reports.
The gathering was organized by the Orthodox Union, and participants represented a diverse cross-section of the Orthodox community. Aside from the Orthodox Union, representatives were in attendance from the Rabbinical Council of America, Chabad, Agudath Israel, Yeshiva University, Lakewood, and elsewhere. Our group was allowed to broach any topic, no matter how sensitive.
Aside from the obvious surreal nature of meeting with the President and Chief of Staff at the White House, I found the entire experience to be very direct, encouraging, and positive.
The meeting began with Chief of Staff Lew, himself an observant Jew. In that meeting, many important issues facing our community were discussed. Mr. Lew opened the meeting with a discussion of the challenges that President Obama faced upon coming into office, such as the crumbling economy and America’s diminished standing in the world. He also discussed what the Administration is doing to help prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and how sanctions against Iran have had a genuine impact.
Questions were then posed by the group on a wide range of topics. Among them, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York, asked about the relationship between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He phrased his question in a dramatic way by pointing out that the date of our meeting was the 45th anniversary of the start of the Six Day War. Chief of Staff Lew assured us that the administration continues to be deeply committed to Israel’s security and its ability to flourish. He stated his belief that the peace process is fundamental to Israel’s security and has gained importance given world events in surrounding countries. Shira Yoshor, an OU community leader in Houston, inquired regarding the administration’s previous proposals to reduce tax deductions for charitable donations. Mr. Lew explained that the administration is trying to take a measured approach, and is not asking for the tax deductions to be eliminated, but that it becomes equal for all tax brackets. Rabbi Binyamin Blau, of Cleveland’s Green Road Synagogue, brought up the issue of non-profits continuing to receive Homeland Security grants. This is an initiative the White House supports and seeks to continue funding, but that might be subject to congressional budget cuts.
Finally, Richard Joel, President of Yeshiva University, asked a more reflective question regarding Chief of Staff Lew’s White House experiences as an Orthodox Jew. In his answer, Chief of Staff Lew related that it is not uncommon for the President to remind him of the time on Friday afternoons and to ask good-naturedly why he is still at the office.
After about half an hour of discussion, President Obama entered the room. He came in with a big smile and proceeded to walk around the entire room greeting each person. As we took our seats, Nathan Diament, OU Executive Director of Public Policy, formally introduced President Obama to our group.
Dr. Simcha Katz, President of the OU, posed the first question about the affordability and sustainability of private school education. This is, as Dr. Katz said, “the number one kitchen table issue” facing the American Orthodox Jewish community. It affects families nationwide, especially those with children who require special-education. The President described how there is actually more Federal money available for the states, but there are various logjams preventing those funds from being distributed. We must identify these logjams and work with our local and state politicians to free up greater funding for school choice. He encouraged us to reach out to the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.
Next, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the RCA, asked the President what lessons he has gleaned from his involvement in the Middle East peace process and how his experiences to date will influence his role in the process going forward. The President was emphatic about his role as a strong supporter of Israel.
He cited a number of steps the administration has taken over the past year to support Israel directly and to oppose the delegitimization of Israel around the world. He pointed out that his administration’s positions were in keeping with those of the past four American administrations. The President also reiterated the warm relationship he has with Prime Minister Netanyahu.
I asked the third and final question. I began by telling the President that I read his book, Dreams from My Father, eight years ago, and found it to be a remarkable story about an adolescent’s journey to discover his identity. Since I spent 20 years working with teens, the book had a profound effect on me. I told President Obama that I keep a Hebrew translation of his book in my office. When the President told me that he too had a Hebrew copy of the book which he is unable to read, I offered to translate it for him at a future date.
My question focused on religious liberty, especially as it pertains to the recent flare-up over the Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring employers, including some religiously affiliated organizations, to provide contraceptive health services to their female staff members. Many in the Jewish Community are concerned that the government is creating, perhaps unintentionally, a two-tier system in which churches are considered religious institutions while religious hospitals and schools are not. This demarcation would have ramifications for the Jewish community, requiring a different set of governmental standards for our synagogues versus our day schools. I asked the President about his thoughts regarding the role of religion in American society today, and specifically, how the government can walk the fine line of maintaining the separation of church and state while still supporting the faith community?
At this point, it became wholly apparent that the President is by training a professor of constitutional law. His thorough analysis of the issue gave great insight into his view and enabled me to better appreciate his position. He spoke of the multiple choices he faced in developing the Health and Human Services mandate while seeking to provide contraceptive and other women’s healthcare services to more women. He could have not exempted any employers, including houses of worship; he could have exempted all religiously affiliated employers, including the hospitals and schools which employ many women of diverse faith; or he could strike the balance he did – fully exempting houses of worship, and having women who work at religiously affiliated institutions receive these health services, but directly from an insurance company, not from their employer. This, the President explained, is how his administration attempted to balance the rights of all parties.
Following the discussions, our group presented the President with a beautifully-framed copy of President George Washington’s famous letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island. The letter was written subsequent to the first occasion on which a president met with representatives of his Jewish constituents. While we had been told not to expect a photo opportunity with the President, upon receiving this gift it was President Obama who said that the occasion called for a group photo. We all started to gather on one side of the Roosevelt Room, but the President said the magic words, “This picture would look a lot better in the Oval Office.” We then walked the twenty feet into the Oval Office and took the photo. The President was very gracious, and while we had taken far more time then allotted, he proceeded to say a personal goodbye to each member of our delegation.
I found this entire meeting to be most refreshing. It is no secret that some of the administration’s policies have not been embraced by many in the Orthodox community. Knowing this, one might expect the President to be on the defensive, but I found the President to be honest, straightforward, and relaxed. He seemed to truly enjoy meeting with our group and thoughtfully discussing the issues we raised. The questions were asked respectfully and reflected the issues of concern to our community; the responses were equally respectful and remarkably candid. I felt that this was what politics should be like: people with different points of view being able to calmly and rationally discuss issues despite the fact that they may differ on a number of points.
I have a plaque in my office with a quote from a different president, Ronald Reagan, which he said during his tenure as governor of California. “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally,” said Reagan, “not a 20 percent traitor.”
It would be disingenuous to expect President Obama’s approach on all matters to be identical with our own. We may differ on occasion with the administration on policy issues, but that does not mean that either position is ill-informed or thoughtless.
I firmly believe that through civil discourse we can better understand the issues and find our common ground.