About six years ago, in the aftermath of a romantic dissolution, White House speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz embarked on the most unlikely of relationships: She began a serious commitment to Judaism.
And how is that relationship going?
By Hurwitz’s own account, in “Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There),” she is head-over-heels in love with Judaism. Her study and practice of it continue to grow and enrich her in multiple ways.
The book, her first, is part memoir, part meditation on faith, part guidebook and part call to action. She will speak about it at the JCC in Palo Alto on Sept. 23.
As she notes at the book’s outset, Hurwitz, 42, was an unwitting candidate for such a love affair. Like many American Jews who attended Hebrew and religious school as youngsters, the native of suburban Boston found the experience dull and uninspiring. By the time she was at Harvard, where she earned her undergraduate and law degrees, she had no regular engagement with Judaism. Her one visit to the campus Hillel for a Shabbat dinner reinforced her estrangement.
“Everyone there seemed to know each other from Jewish summer camp and be in on some inside joke to which I was not privy, and I couldn’t follow any of the prayers or rituals,” she writes.
Hurwitz, who served as first lady Michelle Obama’s head speechwriter from 2009 to 2017, as well as a senior speechwriter for President Obama, had a transformational experience when she enrolled in an introduction-to-Judaism class at the JCC after her breakup.
“I signed up less to fulfill some existential longing and more to fill a couple of hours on a Wednesday night that would otherwise have been spent feeling lonely in my apartment,” she notes in “Here All Along.”
But the class became more than a tool to fill a void. A lot more.
“I fell in love with the texts,” Hurwitz told J. in a recent interview, explaining how a spark had been ignited. Her days of “pediatric Judaism” — minimal knowledge of a few Jewish holidays, prayers and traditions — were soon over.
Her rediscovery of Judaism while she worked in the White House did not so much influence her work there as clarify it.
That one class led to a second, which led to additional classes, Jewish mediation retreats and the purchase and perusal of hundreds of Jewish books from across the denominational and ideological spectrums: from Orthodox to Reconstructionist to Renewal; from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a civil rights leader, to Dennis Prager, a conservative commentator.
“If someone has something of value” to add to her understanding, Hurwitz said, their religious or political affiliation matters little to her. She references scores of Jewish thought leaders throughout “Here All Along” as she charts her religious and spiritual journey.
If would-be readers think that Hurwitz is engaged in a cerebral exercise simply to acquire a better understanding of Judaism’s rich history and traditions, she and the book’s contents will quickly disabuse them of that notion.
“It is very much a spiritual practice for me. A lot of joy has come from the basics,” she said. When she understands what a prayer means, Hurwitz said, she deepens her relationship with the Jewish sense of the Divine.
Part of what she loves about Judaism is “the very high ethical bar” it sets — she writes extensively about the propensity in Washington to engage in “lashon hara,” meaning “evil tongue” or gossip — and how it forces her to get out of her comfort zone to wrestle with ideas of God.
Always interested and involved in public service and social justice, Hurwitz said her rediscovery of Judaism while she worked in the White House did not so much influence her work there as clarify it, particularly as she crafted speeches for the first lady about the rights of young people, no matter their background, to pursue their dreams.
“The belief that every single one of us is created in the image of God has been cited as the defining Jewish idea,” she writes.
Her grasping of this concept “flooded me with a recognition. This In-the-Image idea and the ‘inalienable dignities’ that flow from it are the very values that run through just about every speech I have ever written.”