Aaron Keyak was a blue diaper baby.
Raised in a progressive household in San Francisco, he has childhood memories of stuffing envelopes for Democratic campaigns and tagging along with his mother when she spoke at Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club meetings. He considers himself a proud liberal Democrat.
He also wears a kippah, prays in a Modern Orthodox shul, keeps kosher and unplugs for Shabbat.
Those themes of Jewish community and progressive politics have played out in his work life. For the better part of a decade, Keyak has been a public relations specialist in Washington, D.C., with most of his clients hailing from progressive circles or Jewish circles.
Sometimes the two circles intersect.
Now, after working for independent public relations firms, Jewish organizations and members of Congress, Keyak, 30, is teaming up with political veteran Steve Rabinowitz to start a new D.C.-based company, Bluelight Strategies.
Announced in December at the Latkes and Vodkas party held in the firm’s Washington office, the PR firm is planning to officially launch this month, though a soft launch has already commenced. Rabinowitz is the president, Keyak the managing director.
While it’s a new firm, its mission is not. Keyak and Rabinowitz (his former boss) will continue to represent progressive and Jewish clients.
“I’ve always found you’re more successful and more committed when you only work with people or organizations you agree with,” Keyak said. “That’s what we do.”
Among the clients Bluelight represents are the Jewish Federations of North America (the umbrella organization of the Jewish federation system) and the Jewish Council of Public Affairs. The firm just helped a progressive candidate unseat an entrenched incumbent on the Washington city council.
Bluelight now is taking on a closely watched environmental fight in North Carolina, one pitting activists against a cement manufacturer that wants to build a plant on sensitive wetlands. “We do rapid, aggressive messaging,” he said of the Bluelight style. “It’s a war-room approach to serving our clients.”
Keyak said the key to success in his line of work is maintaining good relationships with reporters and always keeping his credibility intact.
“We’ll never pitch anything we don’t believe in,” he said. “And, of course, we have to be able to communicate the message. Even if you have the solution for world peace, it doesn’t matter if you can’t get the point across.”
Keyak’s passion for progressive politics started at home. He grew up observant, his family belonging to Adath Israel Congregation, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in San Francisco. His parents are both lay leaders there, with his father, Jeffrey Keyak, serving as board president and mother, Vicki Keyak, as vice president.
But Democratic politics was as much a family tradition as religious observance. It goes back to his grandfather, Bert Coffey, an East Bay political activist who early on fought for civil rights, women’s rights and other liberal causes.
Keyak majored in political science at Washington University in St. Louis, but once he landed in D.C., he applied his talents to public relations. His first job was as an associate at Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications, a firm that served Jewish and liberal clients. It was founded in 1994 by Rabinowitz, a veteran of political campaigns and a press aide in the Clinton White House who produced the famed photograph of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat shaking hands on the South Lawn.
Keyak went on to serve as communications director of the National Jewish Democratic Council during Barack Obama’s 2008 run for president, and throughout the first year of the Obama administration, and later was named the organization’s interim executive director.
Most recently, he was the communications director and senior Middle East policy adviser for Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), and before that, he served a similar role for former Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), who helped push U.S. support for Israel’s Iron Dome.
Once of his proudest achievements — and the impetus, he said, behind the decision to form the new partnership — was working with Rabinowitz on “The Hub,” a full-court press effort to keep Jewish voters in the Democratic column during Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
Those were happy days for Democrats. Last fall’s smashing Republican victory, which saw the GOP take control of both chambers of Congress, knocked Democrats for a loop. Keyak, however, said he doesn’t worry much about the changing of the guard.
“A Republican Congress helps draw the contrast better when it comes to [abortion rights], LGBT rights or any other issue that falls into the rubric of tikkun olam,” he said. “Even if you talk about Jewish Republicans, three quarters of them are pro-choice. These culture wars are traif to Jewish voters.”
Jewish voters typically skew liberal, with Democratic presidential nominees at times garnering 70 percent of the Jewish vote. Among Orthodox Jews, that figure drops considerably. The Orthodox Union, which purports to speak for the movement, routinely weighs in on issues of the day, often siding with conservatives.
How does Keyak square his Orthodox faith (he is a longtime member of Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington) with his liberal politics? He cited the separation of church and state as his bedrock principle.
“Too often the Jewish people have been on the other side, where the state would infringe on our religious liberties and liberties in general,” he said. “I don’t want the government in the bedroom and I want it out of my shul.”