It’s almost Hanukkah, and Matt Nosanchuk knows what to expect when his phone rings with a Brooklyn-area number on the screen. Almost for sure, it’s another Jewish community leader concerned about not having yet received an invitation to the White House’s annual Hanukkah reception.
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Navigating the jockeying among Jewish leaders for access to this seasonal celebration is the easy part of Nosanchuk’s job as President Obama’s liaison to the Jewish community at the White House Office of Public Engagement. In the past year, Nosanchuk found himself in the middle of an epic, some say unprecedented, battle between the Jewish community and the Obama administration over the nuclear deal signed with Iran. He was tasked with the thankless mission of convincing a largely resistant Jewish organizational leadership that his boss, Obama, would never sign a deal that endangers Israel.
“I felt that I hadn’t worked that intensively and hard consistently ever. It was exhausting,” Nosanchuk recalled in a November 23 interview at the Old Executive Office Building.
Shortly after the nuclear deal was signed, White House Chief of Staff Ben Rhodes jokingly told Nosanchuk that his job was to “talk to every Jew in America” and convince him or her to support the agreement. By the end of the summer, after endless hours of phone conversations, meetings and email blasts, Rhodes got back to the Jewish community liaison, assuring him he had “pretty much covered that.”
“I was surprised it became this defining debate of the presidency,” Nosanchuk said of the debate over the Iranian nuclear deal. “I felt like I had a front seat to one of the most intensive campaigns.”
Nosanchuk never expected that serving as a conduit between the White House and the Jewish community, especially during a Democratic presidency, would be such a difficult task. “The greatest challenge is the Hanukkah party,” one former liaison joked. But rising tensions between the Obama administration in Washington and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem took their toll on Jewish views of the White House, creating an added layer of suspicion and mistrust.
The most recent demonstration of this sentiment came in the aftermath of the November 19 murder of U.S. citizen Ezra Schwartz in the West Bank by Palestinian terrorists. Jewish leaders were dismayed by what they viewed as a slow acknowledgement by Obama of the fact that Schwartz was an American terror victim, just like U.S. citizens killed in recent attacks in Paris and in Mali. A closer look at the facts indicates that much of this criticism was unwarranted, but with relations still tense, some in the Jewish community opt for suspicion as their default stance when it comes to the Obama White House.
“This president and this administration are not the typical Democratic administration vis-à-vis the Jewish community,” said Jarrod Bernstein, Nosanchuk’s predecessor. “It’s the combination of a president who doesn’t come with a lot of political background [with the organized Jewish community] and the types of issues he had to deal with.”
“When relations between some elements in the community and the president became testier, Matt’s role became more serious,” recalled Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director emeritus. “He succeeded in keeping the communication lines open.”
When Nosanchuk took over as Obama’s liaison to the Jewish community, the former civil rights activist had no way of knowing he’d be thrust into the most contentious moment in the relationship between American Jews and the administration. Nosanchuk spent days in the White House “peace room” — the equivalent of a “war room” — from which the campaign to ensure congressional support for the deal was directed. He traveled to Jewish communities and helped facilitate Obama’s public appeals to the Jewish community, including his speech at the Adas Israel congregation, the webcast to Jewish federations and the exclusive interview with the Forward.
But mostly there were endless phone calls, aimed at countering the messages that members of the Jewish community were hearing at synagogue or reading in email alerts popping up in their inboxes.
“Matt has the unique ability to continue to answer questions time and again and not to let personal attacks on the president get to him,” Bernstein said. “Sometimes the questions could get a bit ridiculous, but Matt always stayed measured.”
Nosanchuk believes this effort succeeded in moving the needle, despite the overall rejection most major organizations and leaders expressed toward the deal. “I felt that we moved people from being, say, 92% opposed to being 70% opposed,” he said. “They might not support it, but they certainly dialed back their opposition and at least realized that we had a shared objective: to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.”
Now, Nosanchuk and the White House team have shifted gears, moving from a campaign to convince American Jews to support the nuclear deal to picking up the pieces after the battle.
“I’m an optimistic person by nature, and I don’t think the American Jewish community is in any way irreparably harmed by this debate,” he said. “Debates and disagreements are healthy. It’s what we do as Jews.”
Nosanchuk sees signs that the healing process is already underway: the joint statement of 53 Jewish organizations calling for unity following the Iran debate; a successful meeting between Netanyahu and Obama in October, and the upcoming visit of Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, scheduled to visit the White House December 9.
Nosanchuk looks younger than his 50 years. Wearing the obligatory Washington dark suit, he could be one of the thousands of administration professionals who flood the downtown district during lunchtime. But in conversation Nosanchuk shuns government bureaucratese in favor of a plainspoken, direct style of speech that avoids the namedropping common among those in the capital’s rat race.
Nosanchuk is an outsider to Jewish communal politics. His career, as a Capitol Hill staffer and as an adviser in the Clinton and Obama administrations, has focused on civil rights and on combating hate crimes. A leading activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, Nosanchuk lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his teenage son.
His personal history, Nosanchuk said, is also one of an outsider. He grew up in Canada, only to move, after his parents’ separation, across the river from Windsor, Ontario, to downtown Detroit. It was a time when many white residents in Detroit proper were fleeing to the suburbs, leaving his family one of the few white Jewish families left in a black neighborhood. At the same time, Nosanchuk went to a private school in a predominantly white upscale neighborhood, where he was—under very different circumstances—the only Jewish student in his school. He remembers vividly how he was left out when classroom friends held birthday parties at the local country club that did not admit Jews.
The family chose its own path to Judaism, joining a congregation in Farmington Hills, Michigan, led by Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The society, which claims some 30 affiliated congregations around the country, disavows belief in any deity and instead emphasizes Jewish ethics, culture and history in a congregational framework.
Notwithstanding this influence, Nosanchuk was also attracted to his grandparents’ traditional approach to Judaism. He had his bar mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and wore for the first time a yarmulke and prayer shawl, religious accoutrements not used in the Humanistic denomination.
As an adult, Nosanchuk grew interested in the writings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, a seminal American Jewish theologian and thinker who established the Reconstructionist movement. Like the Society for Humanistic Judaism, Reconstructionism stresses Judaism as a civilization, but retains Jewish religion and many of the traditions associated with it as a key component. Nosanchuk eventually joined the Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in suburban Washington.
“We’re an extremely activist congregation,” founding Rabbi Sid Schwartz said, positioning the congregation as “left of center” on issues relating to Israel. Nosanchuk, Schwartz said, fits this spirit. “It’s very easy in this position to cuddle up to the major Jewish organizations that tend to be center-right,” he said, adding that during Nosanchuk’s tenure, the White House opened up to a wider spectrum of Jewish groups.
Nosanchuk’s background, however, could leave many guessing regarding his politics on issues relating to Israel. As a student at Stanford he was active with the local support group for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the establishment Washington-based pro-Israel lobby group. Later, Nosanchuk worked closely on religious freedom cases with prominent Washington attorney Nathan Lewin, a champion of many Orthodox causes, and with the Anti-Defamation League on hate crime legislation.
“I haven’t spent my whole career in Jewish community life doing pro-Israel advocacy,” he said. “The Jewish community has this breadth and depth, and Israel is a very important part of it, but there are other issues, too. And frankly my experience with the Jewish community was with the other aspects of it.”
For decades presidents have seen value in appointing liaisons to reach out to specific constituencies, but the Jewish community is clearly the smallest in number to receive its own designated liaison in the White House. “We have more groups per capita than any other interest group,” said Tevi Troy, who served as liaison to the Jewish community for President George W. Bush. He explained that the position is needed both to convey the voice of the Jewish community to the West Wing and to target White House messaging at the Jewish community.
Do the president and members of his close circle listen to the liaison’s advice?
“This depends on who is doing the job,” Troy said. “It depends who the person is and how the White House works.”
Nosanchuk’s work in the midst of the Iran deal controversy has granted him direct access to the policymaking circles and made him a key contact for Jewish leaders who in the past might have chosen to use their personal ties with senior officials to bypass the liaison office.
It also gave him a clear sense of Obama’s frustration with the way he is perceived by some parts of the Jewish community. “When I look at the job and the range of issues, and the positions of this administration and how they overlap with and are consistent with our values as Jews, I see a tremendous common ground here,” Nosanchuk said. “So it’s frustrating to see when people view him so differently.”
But Hanukkah is one time of year when these sentiments are put aside. It offers a chance for the president and his senior staff to mingle with the Jewish community’s movers and shakers in a nonpolitical setting, including many who might otherwise be at odds with Obama’s policies.
Nosanchuk, alongside the White House social staff, has the unenviable job of deciding who will be invited to the event, which has long become a status symbol in Jewish communal politics.
This year, he will also have to decide which menorah will be used in the ceremony. The White House issued an open call to the public for submitting suggestions. The offers varied from a menorah made of the ruins of the World Trade Center towers, to one assembled from bullets from the Yom Kippur War, to a menorah that was found buried under the ruins of Dachau death camp.
Choosing the winning menorah is another potential minefield for an official trying his hardest to stay on good terms with all walks of the Jewish community, and Nosanchuk made clear, for all those who will not get their menorah into the White House ceremony, that it was a group decision, not one he took on his own.