Meet White House Liaison Jay Zeidman
August 18, 2006Comments (1)
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By Suzanne Kurtz
White House liaison to the Jewish community, Jay Zeidman.
Standing outside a conference room in the Eisenhower Executive Offices of the White House, I listen intently as my intern escort educates me on the significance of the Executive doorknobs.
“This building was originally built for the State, War and Navy Departments,” he explains. “You can tell who used which room by the insignia on the doorknob.”
Intrigued, I am examining the doorknob, when I notice a young man walking purposefully towards us.
“Hi, I’m Jay,” he says with a serious handshake, but amiable affect.
Despite his easy presence, Jay Zeidman is a guy with a lot of responsibility. For the last several months he has been serving as the White House liaison to the Jewish community, a post falling under the jurisdiction of the Office of Public Liaison.
“Our office doesn’t create policy, we communicate it,” explains Zeidman. “And the communication is a two-way street. It’s our way of gauging honest feedback from the groups that are politically, socially and morally important to the President.”
“This position has taught me a lot about how religion and politics interplay. And about faith in general,” he says.
But some issues, like stem cell research, can be tricky. While he has the task of pitching the president’s position on this controversial subject, Zeidman must also communicate the Jewish community’s divided stand.
“I know how Jews feel about this issue, but there’s a major difference between how the Reform Jews feel and how the Orthodox Jews feel,” he says. “I need to understand how this issue relates to the different movements.”
While it may sound like a job of enormous magnitude for a young man of 23, his poise and gravitas have long been a work in progress.
He was, after all, the first Jewish president of the student body at Texas Christian University, where in 2005 he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in economics and political science. It was a formative experience, giving him hands-on leadership training.
“Not many 20-year-olds have the opportunity to campaign for themselves. I did it all myself and was elected by my peers,” says Zeidman. “I told them what I hoped to accomplish during my 12 months in office and I wanted to make it a year of concrete results.”
He lobbied the school’s administration for more student parking spots, more designated study areas in the library and getting the Wednesday before Thanksgiving off. Zeidman also learned how to work with people at all different levels of the university community.
“I had to work with faculty, staff, students, alumni, school administrators; people with many different opinions and points of view. It was a challenge and teaches you what you’re made of,” he says.
Zeidman is equally passionate when talking about another campus initiative he orchestrated.
“There was a student board made up of all different religious faiths and I was responsible for leading Holocaust Remembrance Week,” he says. “I knew what the Holocaust meant as a Jew, but how to make it meaningful for students of different faiths was the challenge.”
He organized hundreds of students to plant flags on the front lawn of the university. Each flag represented 3,000 people killed until the number of flags was equal to the six million Jews and five million other victims of the Holocaust.
“I also wanted to bring in a speaker, but I didn’t want to bring in a Jewish Holocaust survivor,” recalls Zeidman.
Instead he brought in an American who helped liberate one of the death camps.
“He told us the story of how a group of Jewish survivors came up to him and all they wanted to do was pray,” remembers Zeidman. “He said, ‘I was just a young chaplain then and I didn’t know any Jewish prayers, but I prayed with them.’”
Hearing this unique perspective of the Holocaust had a profound effect on both the students at Texas Christian and Zeidman.
His own Jewish identity was largely shaped by the regular Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations at his parents’ home. Growing up in Houston, the third of Kay and Fred Zeidman’s four children, he attended private school and the Hebrew school of his neighborhood Reform synagogue. Zeidman and his older brother both celebrated their bar mitzvahs on Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem.
“To be there, with my family, in a city I think is beautiful,” he says. “It meant a lot.”
Today, Zeidman is enjoying the life of a young professional in Washington, D.C. and taking advantage of the cultural offerings of the city. He keeps in touch with old friends through Facebook and has survived a foray on JDate. He hopes to stay in his position through the remainder of President Bush’s term in office, then possibly on to business school or working on the next Presidential campaign.
For now Zeidman doesn’t mind his 5:30 a.m. wakeups or his 13-hour work days.
“The best part of my job is the ability to walk into the White House everyday. Regardless of your beliefs, just to stand in the West Wing or the Oval Office makes the hairs on your neck stand up,” he says. “The day that gets old, they say, is the day you should leave.”
We wrap up our interview and are leaving the conference room, when Zeidman asks me a question.
“Do you know the history behind the doorknobs?” he asks. “You can see an anchor on this one.”
As I listen for the second time that day about doorknob insignias, it’s apparent; the job has not gotten old for Jay Zeidman.
Suzanne Kurtz is editor of Hillel Campus Report.