From Hillel to the White House



November 26, 2016

Who: Chanan Weissman

What: White House associate director of public engagement and liaison to the American Jewish community under President Obama

Age: 33

Where: Weissman lives in Baltimore, Md., with his wife and three young daughters.

Education: Master’s degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and bachelor’s degree in journalism and government & politics from the University of Maryland

Tell us about your Jewish upbringing.

I grew up in a household that espoused an abiding love and pride in the Jewish tradition, and a firm commitment to the Jewish future. My parents inspired in me a commitment to my faith and my community by modeling it with  integrity, not by demanding it of me and my siblings. That’s something my wife and I hope to replicate for our three daughters.

Were you involved in Maryland Hillel? How did Hillel impact your college experience?

Maryland’s Hillel was one of the epicenters of my college experience. It was a space where I could grab a quick bite to eat or place to daven, deepen existing friendships and create new ones, reserve time to study for a test  or glean some words of wisdom from [Executive Director] Ari Israel. It was a place that fostered community without uniformity, that took pride in the eclectic mix of Jewish students that entered its doorways. It’s the type of place I know my grandparents wished they had when they attended university many decades ago and one I hope my future grandkids will have many decades from now.

Do you have any advice for students who want to work in government/politics?

There are multiple ways to approach one’s career but two stand out in my mind. The first is to consider the end state from the beginning — whether  it’s becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon, a pulpit rabbi, or an ambassador —  and then plot out the steps ahead of time necessary to achieve that goal. The second is — to paraphrase the president — focus less on what you want to be and focus more on what  you want to do.

College is the ideal time to take the risks you would otherwise not be able to later in life. It’s also the ideal time to explore what issue animates you the most and then search for those  internships, mentors, research opportunities, academic courses, travel grants and language skills that will help you actualize what motivates you to make a societal difference.

How did you end up working at the White House?

I often wonder the same thing. I never imagined a path that would one day end up at the doorsteps of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But life’s a series of inflection points, some you prepare for and some that  are unexpected.

After graduating from Maryland, I worked at several international public relations firms only to realize that the foreign policy client base energized me more than, let’s say, the corporate ones. So I decided to return to graduate school, and this led to a series of fortunate turns. I was admitted into Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and landed a job at the State Department. In the ensuing five years, I served as a junior speechwriter, a desk officer (both at State and the Pentagon) and a media spokesperson. Throughout, I worked on a range of issues from human rights to national security, press freedom to anti-Semitism, in the Middle East and beyond. Eventually, I received a call from someone encouraging me to apply  for the White House liaison position. And here I am today.

How do you define your job?

My primary responsibility is to serve as the White House’s representative to the Jewish community — institutional and  lay leadership, budding start-up organizations, rabbis and cantors from every denomination, and campus activists. I liken the position to a bridge with lanes operating in both directions. I need to, at once, convey the president’s policies and positions to the  Jewish community but also need to fully capture and convey the wide (and growing) range of perspectives from the Jewish community back to the decision-makers at the White House.

What are you working on today? What’s a typical day like for you?

There is no typical day. This morning, I hopped on the phone with various Jewish organizations to discuss the Affordable Care Act and the fourth open enrollment period for people to sign up for health insurance (starting Nov 1 and ending Jan 31), which is  especially important for young folks. I later briefed the vice president and helped edit a speech that he delivered  in the afternoon at a memorial service for [former Israeli President and Prime Minister] Shimon Peres at a synagogue in Washington. I wrapped up the day by giving a tour of the West Wing.

What was your best day at work?

At the risk of sounding corny, the answer is ‘every day.’ Every day, I have the honor to walk through the gates of the White House, to pass by the West Wing, to walk up the Navy Steps of the Eisenhower Building and begin a day of work on behalf of this president and with a community I so deeply identify with — every day I do that, is a best  day of work.

That said, briefing the president in the Oval Office moments before his pre-Rosh Hashanah phone call with hundreds of rabbis nationwide was a highlight.

Jay Zeidman

Managing partner of Resolute Venture Partners and former staff assistant to President George W. Bush and White House liaison to the Jewish community

Age: 33

Where: Zeidman lives in Houston with his wife and  young daughter.

Education: M.B.A. from the Jesse Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University and bachelor’s degrees in economics and political science from Texas Christian University

Tell us about your Jewish upbringing.

I grew up in a Jewish home, with Shabbat dinner every Friday,  surrounded by politics and pro-Israel activism. My father, Fred Zeidman, later became chair of the Holocaust  Memorial Museum in Washington. I went to Israel. Some of my earliest memories are of going to AIPAC, ADL events with my parents as a kid. I was raised to be involved, in my faith and in pro-Israel activities.

How did a nice Jewish boy choose Texas Christian University for college? What was your experience?

As I was looking at universities in Texas, I knew that even if there was no Jewish community there, I would help build one. At TCU, I was the only Jewish kid in my frat, Kappa Sigma, and one of only 60 Jewish students on campus. I quickly got to know the others. TCU didn’t have its own Hillel at the time [today it does]. It was part of North Texas Hillel at the time — a consortium made up of SMU, University of North Texas, TCU — and we planned all our events together. I chaired a Holocaust remembrance event as a sophomore, putting signs up all over campus to commemorate and honor those who perished. From day one, I was active in  the Jewish community on campus. It strengthened my knowledge about my faith. When teachers or friends would ask, “Why can’t you come to class on Yom Kippur?” It was a teaching opportunity for me. I was elected the first Jewish student body president at TCU.

What initiatives did you lead as student body president?

We brought in speakers, including the  liberator of Nazi concentration campus who was a Christian preacher, who we thought would resonate. We made an  impact, educating people who were not traditionally exposed to Judaism or Jewish history.

How did you go from Texas to the White House?

I interned at the White House for [former George W. Bush speechwriter] Noam Neusner for a summer. Noam was doing all the Jewish outreach for President Bush. I graduated TCU and the next day had an offer to go back to White House. Shortly thereafter, I was the assigned the Jewish portfolio. To have, at 22 years old, the opportunity to communicate with leaders of my own faith, was incredibly humbling and moving. I served a man I grew up admiring. Just to walk in to work there every day was an experience I’ll never forget.

What are some of the highlights of the WH Jewish liaison position?

You are exposed to decision makers  impacting the world. POTUS would meet with Jewish leaders all year long. One  time we brought in Jewish student body presidents from the University of Texas, Maryland — not just Brandeis and Yeshiva University, but Jewish student leaders at non-Jewish universities. Every year, POTUS hosts a Chanukah party. President Bush was the first president to kasher the kitchen fully. Our objective was to find a menorah that had significance. We did research, found one saved during Kristallnacht and invited the family who had it to bring it to the White House. To see the White House kitchen become kosher, see Mrs. Bush come down, meet with rabbis doing it, showed me just how important honoring Jewish people was to the president.

How did you prepare to be the White House’s Jewish liaison?

I was never good at sports, I grew up in theater, so I had confidence in my ability to communicate. I was not deciding policy, that was the president. I had to communicate, create an echo chamber in the community. When you work for someone you believe in, it makes it easier to do your job.

What was your best day on the job?

When President Bush welcomed Jewish student leaders, most notably student body presidents from non-Jewish schools, for a meeting on higher education. He welcomed these students in to the West Wing and discussed the issues that students face, particularly considering the rise of anti-Semitism on campus. Because of this meeting and other efforts from our community, the president created a new position at the U.S. Department of State: Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.

Worst day?

There were long days, but it’s different when you’re 22 and single. There were nights when you stayed to midnight, but I said to myself, “look around, look at where you are. I’m working at the White House!”

Have any advice for aspiring politicos?

Do it while you’re young, because there’s not a lot of money in public service, and it’s an intense lifestyle.

What are you doing now?

I went to business school, earned an MBA. After leaving the White House I started a venture capital firm to invest in healthcare and find investment opportunities in the healthcare space.

Any advice for choosing a college?

I chose my school based on the size of classes. I felt a small size would better fit my learning style. I always chose a school where I didn’t know anybody, so I could branch out, get access to new, different perspectives.