Reflections of an Evening with Sarah Hurwitz By Ellie Mendelson, Niv ’14 and Sarah Monderer, Niv ‘14

Earlier this week, Ramahniks had the pleasure of speaking with Sarah Hurwitz, author and former speechwriter for Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Ms. Hurwitz shared with us how she came to be a political speechwriter and anecdotes of her experiences with the Obamas and Clintons. She also spoke about her spiritual journey, which led her to write her book Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There)

Ellie Mendelson and Sarah Monderer, both Nivonim 2014, shared their thoughts about this illuminating evening.

Ellie Mendelson shares:

The conversation with Sarah Hurwitz began with a brief discussion about her time as a political speech writer. She spoke honestly about her journey to become an accomplished speech writer in the Obama administration, a journey that had been previously painted with failure. Hurwitz’s story was captivating, especially because it paralleled her journey of discovering her Jewish faith and spirituality. This idea of failure framed the subsequent discussion of her book. Her motivation for writing the book lies in reaching unaffiliated Jews who have not learned the many beautiful and transformative teachings that Judaism has to offer. She felt that there was no comprehensive and accessible book on the subject. Hurwitz argued that if Jewish people of all backgrounds learned these teachings and practices, their lives would be enriched.

I was thinking about the concept of failure, and how it can be an impetus to discovery. As a biologist, I often think about the scientific method of research, which is deeply rooted in failure. Failure leads us to ask questions and creates growth. Because of this, people who struggle and fail when trying something new often end up more successful in the long run. A TED Radio Hour episode I listened to recently examined the benefits of failure, attributing the act of failure to building resilience and fostering creativity. Failing requires one to reevaluate and try again, to struggle with material and to learn from the mistake. Struggle is essential to Jewish ideology; struggle is literally at the core of “Israel.” Jewish faith teaches us to not merely accept; instead, questioning is core to Jewish thought and spirituality. This connects with the ideas that Hurwitz shared with us from her own professional experiences, too. She mentioned multiple times that she struggles with writing, even though it is her profession. Clearly, struggling with something does not indicate that you are bad at it. Hurwitz demonstrates a known contradiction: struggle and failure are core to success.

When I think back to moments that I am most proud of from my time as a madricha (counselor) at Camp, I think of the moments that were layered with struggle. Calming down a chanicha (camper) that was exhibiting difficult behavior. The smiles on the faces of my chanichim (campers) when we finished running a complex peulah (activity). Those moments arrived after a struggle, but during the difficult moments I had an end goal in mind: provide these chanichim with the best possible experience. Reflecting on the conversation with Hurwitz, having an end goal is really important when going through a struggle. Struggling and failing does not feel as terrible if it is part of something larger. This is true of Judaism, too. Hurwitz is essential to the Jewish community because she can communicate ideas fully and transparently. Hurwitz was passionate about Jewish learning and ideology yet remained accessible to listeners, which is a quality that Jewish institutions need if they want to reach a broader audience. During the Zoom conversation, she was able to plant within me a seed of curiosity to find out what beautiful and transformative teachings I might not have studied. Her candid words and inspirational thoughts were beautiful to hear and I am looking forward to reading her book. If you made it to the end of this blog post, you should too.

Sarah Monderer shares:

Last night, members of the Ramah community had the opportunity to hear from author and speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz. The Zoom call began with questions fielded by Rabbi Gelb, through which the audience learned how Hurwitz came to be a speechwriter, what it was like working with Michelle Obama, and about the overall experience in the Obama White House. Hurwitz liked writing and politics, so through various internships and jobs, including working for Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton, she wound up as a speechwriter. Hurwitz explained that writing speeches was different because you are “writing to be heard, not read.” I had never considered this, so I enjoyed hearing that new perspective! After working with the Clinton campaign in 2008, Hurwitz started working with the new Obama administration. She originally wrote for President Obama but switched to writing for the First Lady full time.

Hurwitz found working with Michelle to be easy because Michelle had a strong voice and knew what she wanted to say. Hurwitz said that she, a white Jewish woman, was able to capture the voice of a black woman by channeling Michelle and by spending time with her. She also pointed out that a lot of research and fact-checking went into the Obamas’ speeches, as they were very concerned about telling the American people the truth (something I miss dearly). Hurwitz added that working in the Obama White House was an amazing experience, in part because of how much they valued diversity. There was a sense of real openness in their administration. Hurwitz experienced this firsthand when she was exploring Judaism – people were excited and proud of her.

Hurwitz’s exploration of Judaism led her to write her book after she left the White House. She hadn’t had positive childhood experiences with Judaism so she took an Intro to Judaism course at a JCC later in life. This began Hurwitz’s spiritual journey, one in which she learned that Judaism explained how to be a good person and how to live a worthwhile life. She then wrote the book she believed American Jews needed right now, a book displaying the “deep transformative wisdom Judaism has to offer.” The discussion on Judaism then led to Hurwitz’s reflections on how people say that “we are all made in G-d’s divine image,” yet no one actually believes that. This is evident for example during the coronavirus pandemic, when people argue that it only affects the elderly. Hurwitz explained that this contradicts the idea of being created in the divine image, as this means the elderly are somehow less valuable.

Hurwitz also related Judaism to our current society by examining the religion’s relation to the Black Lives Matter movement. She suggested that the two are related through ethics, and that in Judaism there is a much deeper aspect to ethics than merely “being kind.” Hurwitz went on to add that Judaism views each person as a full world, thus each person must be treated with dignity. Furthermore, she said that Judaism has “a particular abhorrence for those who attack the most vulnerable.” I found these ideas to be comforting, as it was nice to feel a sentiment of anti-racism coming from my own religion. Hurwitz also talked about our modern world by addressing what she believes to be the biggest challenge facing the American Jewish community – a lack of basic literacy across the broad population. The problem according to Hurwitz is that people are too focused on the cultural aspect of Judaism; she is worried about what the cultural Jews are passing down. She praised Ramah, which serves to provide literacy and knowledge alongside culture. I know this rings true for me, as camp has been the place where I have most deeply developed my Jewish identity. Since we are unable to meet in Palmer this kayitz (summer), having Zoom calls like this one with Hurwitz have been a way to fill this void for me. This event is just one of many happening so please join us online in the future and take advantage of the incredible opportunities Ramah continues to offer!