Former Obama Speechwriter speaks on Rich Jewish Content
Sarah Hurwitz was a White House speechwriter from 2009 to 2017, starting out as a senior speechwriter for President Barack Obama and then serving as chief speechwriter for First Lady Michelle Obama. Sarah worked with Mrs. Obama to craft widely-acclaimed addresses – including her 2016 Democratic National Convention speech and her political speeches during the 2016 campaign cycle.
While at the White House, Sarah Hurwitz connected with Judaism, exploring the wisdom of Jewish law, the power of Jewish spirituality, and the lessons of Jewish history. She is currently writing a book on Judaism and her Jewish journey.
She spoke at Beyond the D’var Torah: How to Unleash the Potential of Rich Jewish Content, an event hosted by Jewish Funders Network and sponsored by the Aviv Foundation and Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.
The video version is above. For those who prefer, the complete text of her remarks follows:
It is such a pleasure to be here today, thank you so much for having me.
And thank you Chani for that wonderful introduction. I know I’m not alone in this room in being a huge fan of Chani’s, admiring her professional work and just adoring her as a human being.
And I want to thank her and the Jewish Funders Network for hosting this event to talk about how to help people engage with rich, meaningful Jewish content. And I really commend all of you for taking this on. I don’t think there is any more urgent and important issue for the Jewish people today, and I also think that there’s really no more challenging issue.
And I say this not as a rabbi … or Jewish professional … or scholar – I’m none of those things – I say this as a regular Jew whose own story really illustrates the many difficulties of connecting Jews to meaningful Jewish content.
I had what I think is a pretty typical non-Orthodox American Jewish upbringing. I went to Hebrew school where many hard working Jewish educators did their best to make up for the fact that neither I nor any of my classmates had any kind of meaningful Jewish practice going on at home. And I didn’t really enjoy it.
My family attended High Holy Day services at our local synagogue … and they were excruciating. Plodding through those awkward responsive readings, reciting our lines on cue in that old-timely language, honestly, it felt like we were all bit players in some kind of depressing historical re-enactment, and it left me feeling like Judaism was something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
And once I had my bat mitzvah, beyond grudgingly attending an occasional High Holy Day service, I was pretty much out.
Then, about four years ago, I broke up with a guy I had been dating, and I suddenly had all this time on my hands that I was looking to fill … and I got an email from the DCJCC advertising an eight week intro to Judaism class. I signed up for this class not to fulfill some deep existential longing, but really just to fill my Wednesday nights.
And while there was nothing particularly special about the class itself, I was absolutely blown away by the material we were studying.
The texts on Jewish ethics and values articulated my ethics and values, but in a way that was far deeper, and more insightful than I ever could have done myself.
Seen through adult eyes, practices like Shabbat struck me as utterly brilliant and profoundly counter-cultural in a way that we desperately need right now. In our consumerist society which tells us that we never have enough money, possessions or success and we should just keep working harder and spending more, to have a tradition that insists that for 25 hours each week, we say, “No boss, I’m not going to answer your emails; no Facebook, I’m not going to sit around liking things, being advertised to, and feeling bad about my life. Instead, I’m actually going to spend time with my loved ones, stop trying to bend the world to my will, and actually appreciate what I have.” That’s pretty amazing.
That initial class led to other classes … a lot of reading on my own … and my first Jewish meditation retreat, which was where I was exposed to a kind of Jewish spirituality which I found to be incredibly powerful and unlike anything I’d ever experienced in a synagogue.
This wasn’t the boring Hebrew school or services I’d grown up with – it wasn’t dull or stale or offensive … it was moving, and insightful, and incredibly relevant to my life today.
And I think my story perfectly illustrates a key problem here: the fact is that the only points of contact many Jews have with Judaism are with its least accessible, most-off putting parts.
If all you see of Judaism is your mediocre Hebrew school and two High Holy Day services a year, and you don’t have the extensive learning necessary to understand the depth and complexity of Jewish liturgy, then these services basically seem to depict a God who’s a king on a throne in the sky, who rewards and punishes people entirely according to their merit, is all powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, and really enjoys our repetitive prayers to him.
Few people, including your rabbi, actually believe in this kind of God. But how would you, as an average Jew, know that?
And why would you walk away from such an experience thinking, “You know, I really think Judaism can help me cultivate a meaningful spirituality, and explore my big questions about what it means to be a good person … do good in the world … and lead a meaningful, purposeful life. I really think this is something I want to teach to my children.”
And I find this to be maddening, because all of this is exactly what Judaism has to offer people.
But they have no way of knowing that.
It’s this epic communications problem where we never convey to the average Jew precisely the things about Judaism that they would find to be most meaningful and relevant to their lives.
As a result, many Jews know very little about Judaism, like shockingly little. It reminds me of those surveys where they ask Americans to name the three branches of government, and a surprising number of people can’t name a single branch.
If you did a similar survey of the Jewish people, I bet you would find that while they might know the Torah is the thing on the scrolls in the cabinet at the front of the synagogue, they have no idea what it actually is. Ditto for the Talmud.
If you asked them what Jewish values are, they’d probably say something like “social justice.” Which is nice, and certainly true, but that also happens to be a Christian value … and a Muslim value … and a Buddhist value … and a secular humanist value.
There is certainly a unique Jewish understanding of, and approach to, social justice, but they have no idea what it is.
If you asked them what the Jewish conception of God is, they likely won’t know that that’s a trick question – that there is no one accepted definition or theology of God in Judaism. If you ask them what Judaism says about what happens after you die, chances are, they have no idea.
And these aren’t nitpicky questions about obscure points of Jewish law – these are some of the most important questions that we grapple with as human beings.
So this is the first problem – people know very little about Judaism, and it’s unlikely that they’ll ever have any reason to remedy that lack of knowledge.
But let’s just say that, like me, they somehow get inspired and decide that actually, Judaism does have something to teach them, and they really want to learn it.
Honestly, I wish them luck.
I have two degrees from Harvard, I’ve written speeches for the President and First Lady of the United States, and while I have many flaws and weaknesses, being stupid is not one of them. But trying to learn about Judaism has been one of the hardest things I have ever done. It makes working in the White House seem incredibly easy.
And I’m not talking about becoming a renowned scholar – that was never my goal – I’m talking about just grasping the basics. I’m talking about just knowing enough to even begin learning.
One of the biggest challenges about Judaism is that everything is hyperlinked to everything else, and if you don’t have basic background and context, it can be incredibly confusing.
So let’s say you’re a Jew like me five years ago, and someone presents you with a text study.
Ok, for starters, who exactly are these “Rabbis” who seem to be arguing with each other in this really old-school language? Oh, right, those are the scholars who had to re-imagine Judaism about 2000 years ago when the Temple was destroyed.
Sorry, the Temple? Yeah, so Jews back in the day used to worship God by sacrificing animals at a large Temple in Jerusalem.
Ok, but where does the text they’re arguing about – something from Exodus – where does that come from? Oh, that’s from the Torah.
Ok, so the Torah is? And so on.
Jewish holidays and life cycle rituals and ethics are linked to Talmud and Torah which is linked to Jewish history – and you kind of need to know a little about all of it to really understand any of it.
And it’s not easy to get that knowledge by reading on your own.
Unlike Christians, because we don’t proselytize, we actually don’t have a ton of experience explaining Judaism to folks who know very little about it. And a lot of the material out there about Judaism is not particularly accessible.
And I’m not just talking about Talmud or other ancient texts. I’m talking about modern secondary sources as well. I’ve found that many of the smartest, most interesting and inspiring books about Judaism generally require some basic background. I really couldn’t understand them until I’d spent a considerable amount of time working my way through introductory classes and books. And not everyone has that kind of time or motivation, or those kinds of resources.
So in my own book, I’m trying to bridge that gap a little – I’m trying to write the kind of book I wish I’d had four years ago. It’s a personal book, written in the “I” voice, but I’m trying to convey a lot of substance about Judaism, and I’m trying to do so in a way that’s accessible to people with no knowledge and is also smart and persuasive.
I want to share what I’ve found that’s been meaningful and transformative for me … and I want to show people that Judaism absolutely has something to offer them as well … but they have to be willing to go study … they have to be willing to actually do some learning on their own.
And that’s the part of my book I’m dreading – the final part where I try to point them to some resources for learning. I can recommend some books … some podcasts … maybe a website or two, but I really wish there were a whole lot more to offer, particularly when it comes to classes and events.
The truth is that a lot of Jewish engagement opportunities, especially for young adults, are pretty thin on the content.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Soul Cycle – but it’s this really amazing spin class, an exercise bike class, with great music and super-energetic instructors … they light candles, it’s lots of fun. And people work really hard in these classes – they burn a ton of calories and get in excellent shape.
And I have to be honest, a lot of Jewish engagement activities are like Soul Cycle, but without any pedaling.
It’s like: let’s get together and bake fun flavors of challah for Shabbat, or let’s have a party for Rosh Hashanah and make apple and honey-tinis … but let’s not discuss the incredibly profound spiritual, moral and cultural lessons of these Jewish holidays and practices.
It’s fun, but you don’t walk away transformed.
And I think that’s too bad, because I actually don’t think people are just looking for things that are fun and easy – I think they’re looking for things that are meaningful too.
And I certainly don’t have the solutions here – I’m hoping that all of you will figure this out. But there is one approach that I think is particularly effective that I wanted to highlight – and it involves the work being done by a rabbi named Aaron Potek in Washington, DC.
Aaron is the rabbi for an organization called Gather that focuses on engaging 20 and 30 somethings in Jewish life. And he and I have worked on a couple of projects together that I think may offer some ideas for how to connect people with meaningful Jewish content.
First, twice a year, Aaron leads a weekend long retreat for about 25 DC-area Jews called “Beyond the Tent” where they explore what it means to be Jewish and what Judaism has to say about the big questions they’re asking about their lives.
I taught at the first one of these retreats, and it was a 48 hour deep dive into Jewish texts on a range of topics – from ethics and wisdom, to culture and community, to spirituality.
And while there is a social part of it, it’s not just the usual icebreakers, but getting people to connect in a deep way around everything from their struggles with God to their yearning for meaningful community.
Second, as some of you may have heard, Aaron and I hosted an alternative Yom Kippur experience in a beer garden in Washington, DC last year. Contrary to what the news articles may have implied, we were not playing shirtless beer pong. It was 11am on a Saturday morning, the bar was closed. We were just using the space.
And we had 130 people there – and 50 more on a waitlist, young Jews who were planning to do nothing for Yom Kippur, but who decided to join us.
And instead of just making them recite prayers they don’t understand, we actually dove into the substance of those prayers and the point of the day. We discussed the Unetaneh Tokef prayer: What does it mean? What is the journey this prayer is trying to get you to take? We taught them about Teshuvah and Jewish notions of sin. We had them do a text study on Jonah. So this was engaging with Jewish context in more of a spiritual setting.
And this is what I think characterizes the best engagement with Jewish content – it happens in a variety of different contexts, not just a synagogue … it involves great teachers like Aaron … it leads to programming like Beyond the Tent and our alternative Yom Kippur experience which can be replicated by other rabbis and Jewish leaders in their own communities.
And most of all, it requires some unconventional thinking.
Aaron definitely got some pushback for that Yom Kippur event – people said things like, “Why do you need to do this beer garden thing? Why can’t you just do a learners’ minyan at a shul?”
While he appreciated the feedback, the kind of Jews we were trying to reach aren’t going to go to a shul. In fact, they don’t know what the words “shul” or “minyan” even mean. So this kind of thinking really loses people at hello.
But if you’re willing to be innovative, and take some risks, I think you can make a huge difference here.
And I don’t use the word “huge” lightly – I would urge you to think big. Like Birthright big. Think about what could happen if we invested that kind of passion and commitment – and that level of resources – into a kind of Birthright experience that exposes people to powerful Jewish ideas and practices and shows them how the wisdom and worldview of Judaism can transform their lives.
Just for me personally, discovering rich Jewish content changed how I see the world and how I live my life, and it’s led me to want to inspire others to have the same experience. And I think if you all can find a way to reach more Jews like me, you can have a tremendous impact on our Jewish future.
So thanks for taking this on, and I really look forward to seeing what you all do.
In preparation for “Beyond the D’var Torah,” Jewish Funders Network invited rabbis, educators, and other experts to weigh in on rich Jewish content and why it matters. You can read their responses here.