Former White House speechwriter shares her Jewish journey
By Stacey Dresner
After a stint in a Hebrew school that she recalls as a bit of a “loose operation” and a bat mitzvah that she says bore only a passing resemblance to a Jewish life cycle ritual. Sarah Hurwitz was “just kind of done with Judaism.”
That was before a break-up with a boyfriend at the age of 36 that left her with a lot of time on her hands. She decided to fill that time with an Introduction to Judaism class at the local Jewish Community Center where she lives in Washington, D.C.
What she learned in that one class inspired her to learn more about Judaism. She took more intro to Judaism classes, went on Jewish meditation retreats, studied one-on-one with rabbis, read hundreds of books – and found a connection to Judaism through a new, adult look at its rituals, wisdom and traditions.
Hurwitz shares her journey in her new book, Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality and a Deeper Connection to Life – In Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There).
A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Hurwitz practiced law at the Washington, D.C. office of WilmerHale before becoming a speechwriter on the 2004 Presidential primary campaign of Gen. Wesley Clark, and then on Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. She served chief speechwriter for Hillary Clinton during her 2008 presidential primary campaign; and then as senior speechwriter for President Obama’s during the 2008 campaign and after he entered the White House.
She later served as head speechwriter for First Lady Michelle Obama.
Hurwitz recently spoke to the Jewish Ledger about her new book and her journey to find a meaningful connection to Judaism.
JEWISH LEDGER: In your book you write about your experiences in Hebrew school. Looking back at your childhood, do you wish you had had a more rich connection to Judaism back then?
SARAH HURWITZ: I had a wonderful childhood. I wouldn’t change anything. I feel like I had amazing parents, an amazing community, an amazing school. I had such a wonderful childhood I couldn’t imagine changing anything…As for my journey, I’m grateful for it. I love where I am now. I love the journey so far, I don’t have any regrets.
JL: So did your experience in Hebrew school maybe put you a little off of Judaism?
SH: I grew up without much Jewish background but I did attend Hebrew school and I have to say I think it’s a little unfair to blame Hebrew school for anyone’s disengagement from Judaism. Because we essentially say to Hebrew school teachers, “Hey, we have this 4,000-year-old incredibly complex, rich tradition that involves holidays, lifecycle rituals, ethics, theology, history, culture, languages – and we’d like you teach that to our children in two hours a week but oh, actually, Noah has soccer one of those hours so it will be one hour, can you do that?’ That’s an impossible task.
So I think we have put a huge burden on the Hebrew schoolteacher and a very unfair one. So, I certainly don’t blame Hebrew school for becoming disengaged. You know the truth is what I saw in Judaism was two dull, incomprehensible High Holiday services, a lifeless Seder, a Chanukah party and I thought that was all of Judaism. And in those points of contact, I didn’t see everything that Judaism had to offer in terms of ethics and spirituality and so much wisdom for living a meaningful life.
So after my bat mitzvah I became pretty disengaged and then at the age of 36 I broke up with a guy I was dating. I had all this time on my hands that I was just looking to fill, and I happened to hear about an intro to Judaism class at the local JCC here in D.C. and I signed up really just to fill up time. It was not some epic spiritual journey; I was not looking to fill a massive hole in my life. I really was just looking for things to do and I figured, ‘It can’t hurt to learn a little about my tradition.’
But what I found in that class blew me away. It was all of this profound insight and guidance on how to live a worthy life; how to be a good person; how to find deep spiritual connection. It was so much wisdom that I hadn’t seen in those two services and Seder. And that really started me on a journey where I took another intro class, I read hundreds of books, I attended silent Jewish meditation retreats…But the books out there I found were either very nuts and bolts – how to be a Jew – or I found them incomprehensible as a beginner.
So I eventually decided to write the book that I wish I had had when I started learning. One that covers the basics, but that also unearthed a deeper insight Judaism has about how to live a really good and worthy life.
JL: Would you call it an Introduction to Judaism?
SH: It does cover the basics. But I am not a rabbi and I’m not a scholar. I am a Jew in the pew, and not in the pew, right? I am trying to translate all this material for myself and thus in the book I really show how I am wrestling with it and understanding it; how I am taking it apart and putting it back together, so it’s a very relatable kind of narrative, and it’s substantive. You are definitely going to get a good solid introduction.
I wouldn’t say it is comprehensive and it is certainly not an effort to say, “This is Judaism.” I am not qualified to do that. I don’t know if anyone is. What it is is an effort to say, ‘this is what I have found in Judaism that has been most inspiring, transformative, challenging, exciting and meaningful to me and I want to share it with you. And I think you will find it very meaningful and powerful as well.
JL: Are you still wrestling with your connection to Judaism…is that an ongoing thing?
SH: I wouldn’t say I’m wrestling with Judaism. I feel very deeply connected to and very passionate about Judaism. But I think part of the act of being Jewish is to be constantly studying and learning and to be wrestling with and challenging what you learn so that you understand it more deeply and so that you interpret it for yourself.
These are ancient texts that you are dealing with and it is very important that we understand them in a modern, humane, compassionate way.
JL: I know Michelle Obamas is very strong in her faith. Did that influence you at all when you were working with her?
SH: I think she influenced me mainly in that she is very sure of who she is and is also just relentlessly authentic. She is always true to who she is and what she believes. And I think seeing her live her life so honestly and so authentically is one of the things that led me to write this book. Because it was something I was authentically passionate about. But I was scared – Who am I to write a book about Judaism; what if it doesn’t sell well, or what if it doesn’t turn out well? I had all these fears and doubts. But looking to her and looking to the courage that I think she showed everyday by just putting her true self out there again and again, I felt really inspired to at least give it a go. Just watching her live her life that way inspired me to take those risks.
JL: Has she read the book?
SH: I don’t know. I gave her a copy but I don’t know if she has read it yet. I know right when it came out, she sent a beautiful tweet about it and about me. It was really lovely.
JL: What is your state of Jewish observance right now? How do you practice Judaism now? Do you go to temple?
SH: It’s funny, when people are trying to discern how observant I am one of the questions they ask is ‘Do you belong to a synagogue, do you keep kosher, do you observe Shabbat?’
I’ve never once been asked, ‘Do you conduct your business affairs honestly?
Are you careful with the way you speak? How much money do you give to those that are struggling? Do you visit those who are sick or in mourning?” But last I checked, there were 613 mitzvot and the ritual ones are not more important than the ethical ones…so I think it is interesting that we sort of define Jewish observance by adhering to the more ritual Jewish laws. I would say that I don’t eat pork or shellfish, but that is the extent of my kashrut practice; I have regular Shabbat dinners with a close group of friends but I don’t follow the traditional laws about Shabbat.
However, having studied Jewish ethics, I’m much more conscious on a daily basis of my failings. And ethically, I spend a lot more time aspiring to be a better person and falling short; and aspiring again. I’ve spent thousands of hours studying Judaism, which is a mitzvah, and so I am certainly more observant than I used to be but maybe not in the way that people would necessarily expect when they are defining observance.
JL: How has the response been to your book?
SH: I have to say it has been overwhelmingly positive. I really haven’t gotten negative feedback yet, which is the strangest thing. I am amazed at the diversity of backgrounds of people who feel connected to this book. I’ve gotten a lot of really engaged Jews who say,
you really inspired me and moved me.
I heard from very observant Jews, ‘Wow you made me remember what I love about being Jewish.”