My first column. What a lame subject for a first column. But I’ve been meaning to write this column for 20 years, and I’m only just now getting around to it.
Seriously. I’ve had a lot to say. But more than that, I’ve had an extraordinary opportunity these 20 years to see a lot, to experience a lot and even to learn a little – and much of it through a Jewish lens.
I should have started writing about it long before now.
After all, I own a communications firm that among other things, routinely writes these kinds of columns for others; it’s about time I wrote for myself. But where to start? My childhood was great, but nothing special. I grew up in Tucson, Ariz., in the 1960s and 70s – then a sleepy little town.
There were three synagogues in Tucson when I was a kid and we belonged to the Conservative one. We led a very traditional Conservative lifestyle. Weekly Shabbat morning services and even Friday night services – I mean, if my high school didn’t have a football game. We drove to shul but nowhere else. I studied Hebrew and Judaics through high school. USY and Camp Ramah were major parts of my life, all while I was leading a very liberal 1970s lifestyle in public school and with my many secular friends.
But they converged in shul, I wore angora-knit kippot above my long bushy ponytail and what was then known as the “psychedelic tallis.”
When I was 18 and barely through my first year of college, I moved to Washington, pretended to attend summer school at American University and began volunteering full-time on my local congressman Mo Udall’s presidential campaign. I would soon become the campaign’s paid national youth coordinator, the first of eight losing U.S. presidential campaigns on which I’d eventually serve on the national staffs. That is, until I worked for a guy named Bill Clinton.
And that’s where this column really begins.
After brief stints as a political organizer, I became an advance man, traveling several days ahead of these presidential candidates, designing and producing events that satisfied the campaigns’ political and especially media needs. I would eventually come to be known as someone who had a special eye for just how these events photograph for television and newspapers.
And it was that alleged skill that would put me on the Clinton plane, traveling full-time with the then candidate, president-elect and president, literally everywhere he went.
As I say, I got to see a lot, experience a lot and even learn a little.
But for me, who like so many, wears my Jewish identity on my sleeve, the combination of witness to history and big Jewish identifier, while hardly unique in Washington, is at least good fodder for a few columns.
In 1992, I coulda’/shoulda’ written about being universally known as “Rabbi” (or “the rabbi”); about that terrible vegan Passover seder in Pittsburgh (before I even knew the term “vegan”); about High Holiday-service hopping with the political writer for USA Today and a U.S. Secret Service agent (both Conservative Jews); about hosting the campaign Yom Kippur break-fast at my rented house (with all three real Little Rock rabbis in attendance); or about passing out Chanukah menorahs and candles Chabad-like to all the Jewish transition staff. But I never wrote.
During the Clinton presidency, I traveled to Israel with the president and separately with the vice president. I got to help produce peace treaty signings between Israel and Jordan on a new piece of asphalt in the Arava and between Israel and the Palestinians on the nearly 200 year-old South Lawn of the White House. But I never wrote about it.
I brought my father and my godfather (both z”l) to a Havdalah service with the president at the Jefferson Memorial and to a tour of Jewish grave sites at Arlington Cemetery before such a thing formally existed.
But I didn’t think to write about it.
I went with Al Gore to the old Lenin Library in Moscow to review some of its considerable Schneerson collection, the personal library taken from the first Lubavitcher rebbe. But I didn’t write about that, either. (I did consider stealing and repatriating some of them, though. But I for sure wouldn’t have written about that, either.)
For a time, I was reported in the Israeli press to be advising the Labor Party there, attended a state-like dinner for then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak in Washington and was attacked by name on Israeli radio by Prime Minister Netanyahu, accused of running a political research operation here against him. But still, I never wrote about any of it.
When I left the White House, I started a media consulting business and before long, much of the alphabet soup of the organized American Jewish community had come to be clients. Matt Dorf, the former Forward reporter, JTA bureau chief and short-term Jewish lobbyist joined me, and we gained even more Jewish clients (and thank God many more non-Jewish clients).
A dozen General Assemblies of the Federation movement later, help on Jewish outreach for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman and for the John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaigns, multiple presidentially attended gatherings and countless other communal events big and small.
And yet, we never wrote about them.
We publicized and helped organize the massive Israel rally on the West Front of Capitol building during the second Intifada and the Israel@60 celebration further down The Mall. We helped fight the pluralism wars of the 1990s and helped redefine the pro-Israel pro-peace left. We worked on youth Israel trips and examples of extremely generous Jewish philanthropy; the Dalai Lama at a seder and years later in my shul’s sukkah; changes in both Reform and Conservative Judaism. But never a written word from me.
Meanwhile, dating, marriage, kids born, parents died, preschool, day school, synagogue life, a neighborhood kehila (community), closest friends.
I haven’t had the most extraordinary or the most unique Jewish experience in America or even in Washington. I’ve just had my own.
When I speak to young Jews about my time here, I only want to talk about the strength I’ve derived from the great fortune I’ve had to live such a Jewishly political life.
About how, no matter what you do in life, you can still also lead a Jewish life. Or if you’re lucky or as blessed as I, you can even combine them.
And now finally, it’s time I wrote about it. And better than this.
So, beginning here, I committed to Washington Jewish Week to write monthly for the print newspaper about what I see, what I experience, what I learn and, of course, what I think. I’ll try to also blog weekly, post more often to Facebook and finally start tweeting.
No more about me. Beginning next week/month, it’s about everything else.
Regards from Charlotte.
Steve Rabinowitz is president of Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications. Follow him on Twitter @steverabinowitz.