Exclusive: Meet the new White House Jewish Liaison
L - R Steve Rabinowitz, Chanan Weissman, Jordan Hirsch at a Jewish Insider wine tasting event. Credit: Photo by Ron Sachs from CNP/Courtesy Jewish Insider
The Obama Administration is set to name a new liaison to the Jewish community later on Thursday, Jewish Insider has learned. Chanan Weissman will make the transition from the State Department to the White House, becoming the first Modern Orthodox Jew to assume this position for a Democratic administration, according to several sources.
Most recently, Weissman served as a spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Matt Nosanchuk, who held the Jewish liaison position for nearly three years, recently transferred to the State Department, à la ‘Trading Places,’ where he is working as a senior advisor in the Office of Religion and Global Affairs. Observers can debate the respective perks of Foggy Bottom and Pennsylvania Avenue, but only one job comes with the pressure of managing the Administration’s relationship with a community rarely described as ‘shy.’
Among the job’s demanding responsibilities, organizing the annual White House Hanukkah parties ranks high. It was once a single event but thanks to Nosanchuk’s efforts to double the number of invited guests, there are now two separate parties. “Over the past three years – or, as anyone holding this role measures it, six White House Hanukkah receptions – I have had the chance to work with incredible colleagues here at the White House and throughout the Administration,” Nosanchuk told the JTA as he stepped down. For Weissman, the silver lining of the eighth year is that he’ll be one and done on the party planning side.
The eighth year of any White House presents its own unique challenges. Administrations often cede the spotlight to the election season. President Obama has stressed he will not be a lame-duck president, and questions remain about whether the White House will attempt another push for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the final year. According to Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat who participated in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations following the Camp David summit in 2000, there’s no doubt that at some point between now and January 2017, Obama will seek to outline his own version of the Bill Clinton parameters before leaving office. If the White House decides to refocus on the Middle East, one can expect Weissman to play a critical role.
Scott Arogeti, appointed in July of 2008 to be President George W. Bush’s final Jewish liaison, is quite familiar with the timing of Weissman’s new role. “How do you move the ball down the field effectively at a point where the campaign season for your boss’s successor is already in full swing (taking media and public attention along with it) and most major policy battles are likely in the rear view mirror?” Arogeti told Jewish Insider by email. “From the last person to have this honor for President George W. Bush to the one who will presumably follow suit for President Obama, I wish you the best. (…oh, and good luck with the final Hannukah Party list!).”
Of historical note, Weissman is only the third Orthodox Jew — behind Tevi Troy and Marshall Breger — to hold this particular White House position and the first to do so under a Democrat. The Obama Administration, meanwhile, is no stranger to Orthodox Jews as prominent figures, including Treasury Secretary and former White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew and Ambassador Norm Eisen, previously a Special Counsel for Ethics and Government Reform in the White House, have served closely with the President.
In an email to Jewish Insider, Eisen recalled being impressed Weissman early on. “I first met Chanan years ago at the ‘hashkama’ minyan at Kesher Israel in DC, when he was starting his career at the State Department,” Eisen related. “Over cholent, we talked about working in government as observant Jews. I said to myself, someday he will be in the White House. Now he is! He will be a great White House Jewish liaison, continuing the high standard set by Matt and all his predecessors.”
“I think there’s an advantage but also a challenge,” Troy, a Bush 43 liaison, told Jewish Insider about being Orthodox in this White House role. “The advantage is that you have instant credibility within the community as knowledgeable and credible representing the community. The challenge is that the bulk of American Jews are not Orthodox and you have to show you can reach out to all.”
Weissman could have less difficulty due to his prior experience working on human rights and social justice issues. “If they had to replace Nosanchuk, they could not have made a better choice than Chanan,” Steve Rabinowitz, head of Bluelight Strategies, told Jewish Insider. “He’s knowledgeable about the issues, the community and the administration. He’s a modest guy, a politics guy, and a delightful guy. The whole package. And he hits the ground running.”
Weissman, a graduate of Beth Tfiloh High School in Baltimore, earned his Master’s degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and his Bachelor’s degree in journalism and government & politics from the University of Maryland. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland with his wife and three little girls.