Political speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz spoke to dozens of Hillel professionals at the Schusterman International Center on Wednesday about her debut book, “Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There).”
Hurwitz said over a decade of speechwriting experience didn’t prepare her for the rigors of writing a book.
“Writing this book made White House speechwriting look like a joke,” Hurwitz said. “I had to transition from writing to be heard to writing to be read. Speechwriting is very informal and ungrammatical, whereas language that’s meant to be read is much more contained and formal.”
A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Hurwitz started her career in the political sphere as an undergraduate student, becoming a speechwriting intern for then-vice president Al Gore. Most notably was her eight-year stint as a speechwriter during the Obama Administration, beginning as a senior speechwriter for President Barack Obama and then becoming head speechwriter for first lady Michelle Obama.
The end of the Obama Administration signaled a new writing project for Hurwitz that even surprised herself: Judaism.
In her book, she explores the modern relevancy of ancient Jewish scripture. Reviewers have lauded Hurwitz, once a self-described “quintessential lapsed Jew,” for making Judaism accessible and entertaining as she reflects on her own rediscovery of Judaism.
Her work was a finalist in the 2019 National Jewish Book Awards.
“The mistake we often make in the Jewish community is to assume that basic Jewish literacy doesn’t matter,” Hurwitz said. “It’s to assume that you can have a meaningful experience in Judaism without knowing anything about Judaism.”
The afternoon event was hosted by Between the Lines, a book club created by Hillel U, in Washington, D.C. The one-hour conversation with Hurwitz was facilitated by Rabbi Benjamin Berger, vice president for Jewish education at Hillel International.
Reflecting on her years as a political speechwriter, Hurwitz said her entire career has been in service of the Jewish concept B’tselem Elohim, meaning human beings are created in the image of God.
“We’re all infinitely worthy, equal and fundamentally unique,” Hurwitz said. “That Jewish idea of infinite worthiness and uniqueness is the core animating idea of every speech I’ve written.”
Emily Kahn-Perry, a Hillel International Springboard Innovation Fellow at Vanderbilt University Hillel, asked Hurwitz for advice on supporting students as they navigate their Jewish journey.
“It’s important to emphasize that Judaism is a lifelong learning process,” she said. “You can always go a level deeper, even if you’ve already studied the material. Also, remind students to have a little self-compassion. Even Jewish scholars don’t know everything.”
Hurwitz also emphasized the importance of ensuring that Jewish students of varying backgrounds feel accepted and loved.
“Students want community,” Hurwitz said. “I think what’s important in Hillel spaces, and Hillels are doing this now, is a very self-conscious welcoming of beginners.”