U.S. Embassy in San Jose
Meet Fitz Haney, the Israeli-American diplomat, businessman and reality TV star
From a youth in Chicago to a conversion with roots in Mexico, aliya to Israel and an ambassadorship in Costa Rica, Stafford Fitzgerald Haney is still on a journey
Stafford Fitzgerald Haney sits in his office in Herzliya, surrounded by photographs. One features him with former President Barack Obama. Another shows him sitting in a meeting with current Vice President Mike Pence. And hanging next to his desk is a collage of photos showcasing his participation on a recent season of Costa Rica’s Dancing With The Stars.
Even these disparate snapshots don’t come close to telling the full life story of Haney, known to most people simply as ‘Fitz.’ From roots in Nashville and Chicago to a decade working in Latin America, conversion to Judaism, aliya, marriage and a recent gig as the U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica, Haney has lived a colorful and eventful 50 years.
Haney sat down with Jewish Insider on a recent Sunday morning in Israel to discuss his unexpected life journey, his experience as an interracial family in Israel, and his views on both U.S. and Israeli politics today. Sitting in his office, Haney, an affable man with an infectious grin, is dressed in the Israeli business casual staple of jeans — a far cry from the suit-and-tie uniform of an ambassador and even further from the tight pants and glittery shirts he wore on Dancing with the Stars.
How does a Jesuit from Chicago wind up not only married to a rabbi and living in Tel Aviv, but also — spoiler alert — the second-place winner of a reality TV dance competition in a Central American nation? It’s a long story.
“When we first lived in Jerusalem after my wife and I were married, people at Shabbat tables would try to ask nicely and say… ‘so have you always been religious?’” Haney recalled. “‘Yeah, I grew up in a very religious household,’” he would tell them. “‘Just Catholic.’”
After graduating from Georgetown University with a B.S. in International Economics and a M.S. in International Business and Diplomacy, Haney worked for almost a decade in Latin America for companies including Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo and CitiBank. In the late 90s he was living in Mexico, and finding it difficult to fit into a faith community, despite the dominance of Catholicism.
“I said, let me study the Old Testament, because maybe that will help lead me back,” Haney said. “If I study the mother religion, maybe I’ll get reconnected to my own.” So he started looking around for a rabbi who would sit and learn with him, finding an assistant rabbi at an Orthodox community who agreed to the proposal — after clearing it with the country’s chief rabbi and ensuring that Haney was not dating anybody.
“After about a year, I went to one of our meetings, and I said: ‘Rabbi… this started as an intellectual pursuit, but it’s starting to touch me somewhere different. And it just makes sense to me that this is the way I should live my life,’” Haney recalled. “And he said, ‘oh, I could have told you that after our third meeting.’”
After two years of study and growing Jewish observance in Mexico, Haney traveled back to Chicago to formally undergo conversion, and then headed to Israel for further study. While there, he met his future wife, Rabbi Andrea Dobrick, who was finishing up her rabbinical studies. The couple married in 2000, and settled — at first — in Israel. “We made aliya right in the middle of the second intifada,” Haney recalled. He said he walked into the Interior Ministry office with their applications, “and the woman said ‘are you sure you want to do this?’”
Though Haney had come to Israel fully intending to return to the United States, a chance meeting at a hotel gym in Jerusalem changed his plans. “I got on the treadmill and the guy next to me was on the treadmill and he starts a conversation,” Haney recalled. After hearing his background and story, the man told Haney to come by his office the following week. That man? Jon Medved, today the CEO of OurCrowd. The job? A position with Israel Seed Partners that kept Haney in Jerusalem for another few years.
Circumstances led the Haney family back to the New York area, where they settled in Englewood, New Jersey. Later his job with Pzena Investment Management brought him back to the Middle East, and the growing Haney family settled in Zichron Yaakov. Three years later, Haney got a phone call sending the family on yet another global adventure.
That 2014 phone call informed Haney that Obama was seeking to nominate him as the U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica. Haney had been heavily involved in fundraising for Obama’s 2008 campaign, when he was living on the East Coast.
“It was somebody that I wanted to support, and it was really the first time that I’d been” involved in national politics, he said. “It was kind of a natural link between the African American and the Jewish communities. So I did a lot of fundraising in the Northeast.” After Obama’s victory, a friend convinced him to throw his “hat in the ring for an ambassadorship,” citing his vast experience in Latin America and his international studies. But the timing wasn’t right, and Haney ended up being appointed by Obama as a member of the United States Holocaust Council.
Fast forward to 2014, and “it was a surprise to me when I got the call… saying ‘are you still interested in being an ambassador?’” Haney agreed on two conditions: the country would be either Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking, languages he had already mastered, and it would have a Jewish community and Jewish school for his four kids: Asher, Nava, Eden and Shaia.
Costa Rica fit the bill on both counts, and Haney was eventually sworn in June 1, 2015, shortly before his oldest son’s bar mitzva, and amid his wife’s treatment for stage 3 breast cancer. Despite the bumps, Haney enjoyed a successful two years as ambassador. He was the only envoy the Trump administration allowed to remain in office past inauguration — granting him an extension with just two days notice; his term officially ended in July 2017.
But Haney wasn’t quite ready to leave Costa Rica, for several reasons. His children were still in school, his wife was in the middle of cancer treatment and he wasn’t able to immediately return to work.
“We had ethics agreements that we had to sign with the Obama administration that were fairly strict,” he said. “I couldn’t go right back into what I had done previously.” Haney made an offhand comment to a reporter in Costa Rica that he could compete on Dancing With The Stars while he passed the time. Little did he realize that the show would hear about it and come calling.
For five months Haney swiveled his hips and tangoed across the stage, making it all the way to the grand finale of the series and winding up in second place — thanks, he said, to a “lot of public support,” and less to his dance skills.
For just over a year the family has been back together in Israel, where Haney works as a partner and head of strategic development with the Viola Group, a tech-focused investment group. Haney said he has lived around the world and experienced racism on a daily basis. But he said the blunt questions, stares and assumptions about the family in Israel can be upsetting.
“I was really disappointed when I had to sit down with my son — and I already had the talk with him that all parents of color have to have with their children in America, especially male children,” he said, about the caution to take if he is ever stopped by the police. The situation became more pointed in recent months, as protests broke out in the Ethiopian-Israeli community after an off-duty police officer shot dead an unarmed teenager.
“‘Your reality is different,’” Haney said he told his son. “It’s a conversation my parents had with me, a conversation I had with my son, and then I found out I had to have it with him again in Israel. And that was, to me, really shocking.”
Haney said his wife is often asked by Israelis if their four children are really hers, something “that bothers my wife more than anything.” In the United States, he said, “you’re less likely to get it because the idea of interracial families is everywhere. But even if people think it, they’re not going to say it necessarily. Here, they’re very blunt, and they stare.”
Returning to Israel and watching Trump serve as president has also been difficult for Haney.
“It’s hard. It’s very hard,” he said. “I’m more worried about what’s happening to the fabric of the nation than any policies that can be enacted and/or reversed… it’s what the United States as a country stands for that I’m worried about. The ugly undercurrent that I think has come to the surface was always there, but I think people were checking themselves, because they thought they would pay a price.”
While Haney understands that there are many Jews who are supportive of the president and his administration, “I don’t think the current administration is great for the Jews in the larger sense.” Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem “was a good thing, it was an important, symbolic move,” he said. “But I think that the long-term schism in the bipartisan support for Israel is not going to be good.”
Haney also didn’t always agree with his former boss, Obama, on his approach to the U.S.-Israel relationship.
“I think that everything came from good intentions,” he said. “I didn’t agree with everything that was done… in some places they were completely right and I think in some places they missed the boat. I think the politicization of the relationship was not good, for either side.”
Just like he is worried about the Trump administration, Haney is also concerned about extremist voices against Israel in the Democratic Party, in particular Reps. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“I’m concerned — I think the only place where the far left and the far right converge is anti-Israel/antisemitism,” he said. “Some of the tropes, and some of the language being used is not only over simplifying but, is passing into… antisemitism.”
While Haney was all in for Obama in 2008, he hasn’t yet decided who he will be supporting in the 2020 Democratic presidential race. He wishes the field was already narrowed, and that many of the current candidates had never thrown their hat in the ring.
“I think there are a lot of good choices,” he said, expressing a desire for a centrist candidate to win the nomination. He has no love lost for Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who “is not a Democrat anyway,” he said.
Long before Americans select their next president, Israelis will be voting — again — in a national election. And come September, Haney is hoping for a statistically unpopular outcome: a national-unity government between the Likud and its chief rival, Kachol Lavan.
Israel, he said, is a center-right country, “and had Kachol Lavan and Likud been able to get their act together, and had people put country in front of ego, I think they could have created a stable coalition without minority parties from both right or left.”
Though Haney is back in the private sector, he’s not ruling out ever returning again to public service. But would he serve next as an ambassador for the U.S. or for Israel? Haney said while there was a joke when he left his post in Costa Rica that he could take up the position as Israeli envoy in the country, it wasn’t a serious proposition.
And while he thinks Israel needs a serious boost in the global hasbara department — something he’s already worked to counter — his family is hoping to put down more permanent roots in Israel this time around.
Still, “never say never,” he admits. “Let’s put it that way. Okay. Never say never.”
So what Israeli reality show does he have his eye on? Will Haney join the cast of Ninja Israel, Big Brother or Master Chef?
“None. None, none, none.” he proclaims emphatically. After some cajoling he agrees to — once again — “never say never.”