Hilary Eldridge/Jewish Insider
The Chabad chief in the House
As chief of staff for freshman Rep. Michelle Steel, Arie Dana makes history on Capitol Hill
When Arie Dana walked up to a Capitol Hill coffee shop on a recent spring morning, I called him over to my table. “How’d you know it was me?” he asked. “Because I look like the Jewish guy?”
In a fitted blue suit, a navy sweater and light brown oxfords, Dana looked the part of a young, ambitious congressional staffer. He wore round tortoiseshell glasses; his combed-back graying hair appeared perfectly in place.
What gave Dana away as “the Jewish guy” — even more than the yarmulke on the back of his head — was his beard. In some places it extended more than a foot, the dark brown hair interspersed with gray. Dana has an identical twin brother, but “I’m the only bearded one of the family,” he told me, smiling. During our conversation, a young man with unkempt curly hair walked by and shouted “Nice beard, dude!” Dana thanked him.
Nine days after his December 2020 wedding to a woman he met at the University of Southern California Chabad house on Rosh Hashanah, Dana moved to Washington D.C. to serve as the chief of staff for newly elected freshman Rep. Michelle Steel (R-CA), for whom he has worked since graduating college more than a decade ago.
Dana’s journey to this moment began during his freshman year at USC. “I was a College Republican, and one of my fellow College Republican friends was Michelle [Steel]’s daughter,” Dana said.
After graduating, he took an internship with a California state assemblyman, until he received a call from his College Republicans friend. “Michelle’s daughter said to me, ‘Hey, I think my mom is looking for a communications director, are you interested in applying?’” Dana had previously volunteered on her 2006 campaign for the State Board of Equalization, the only elected tax commission in the country. He took the job.
Last November, Steel, then a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, beat incumbent first-term Democrat Harley Rouda (D-CA) to become one of the first three Korean-born members of Congress. (Young Kim (R-CA) also represents parts of Orange County, while Marilyn Strickland (D-WA) represents the area around Tacoma, Wash.)
“I was actually in Crown Heights” — the Brooklyn neighborhood home to the global headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement — “doing some pre-wedding shopping with my fiancée, and I got an email: ‘Arie, book your flight to D.C. for orientation,’” he recounted. He got on a plane to Washington, and “by the end of the orientation, she asked me to be her chief of staff,” Dana recalled.
“Arie has been a dedicated member of my team for more than 10 years in three different elected positions,” Steel told JI. “Arie is the one who introduced me to Orange County’s Jewish community, and I’m grateful for his leadership, which is needed here in Washington.”
Dana is far from the first Orthodox Jew to work on the Hill. There was Peter Deutsch, a former member of Congress who now lives in Israel, and of course Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who went on to serve as Al Gore’s running mate on the 2000 Democratic ticket. Before Jack Lew served as Treasury secretary under Barack Obama, he was a staffer for House Speaker Tip O’Neill.
But according to Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) and Washington’s most prominent Chabad rabbi, “there has never before been a chief of staff to a member — which is the most senior position you get — who was Hasidic in appearance and in observance.” Put more bluntly: “You’ve had many people who were shomer Shabbas, but they were not as outwardly recognizable as observant as Arie Dana,” Shemtov explained. “This speaks volumes about what it is possible to achieve in America without compromising religious principles.”
When Dana was a freshman at USC, he met Rabbi Dov Wagner, the school’s Chabad rabbi. “We always do, on Sukkot, a sukkah in the middle of campus, and offer students the opportunity to make a blessing over the lulav and etrog,” Wagner told JI. “He stopped by the sukkah at that time and made a little connection.” Dana would not reconnect with Wagner in a serious way until after he graduated.
Raised by Mexican parents in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, Dana did not grow up Orthodox. “In Mexico, some of the different Jewish denominations that you see in [the U.S.] don’t really exist,” he explained. “There’s less religious and there’s more religious, but it’s a very traditional environment.”
Dana had his bar mitzvah at a Reform congregation. “We were the first people, I think, who put on tefillin, ever, in this temple for our bar mitzvah, and it was something that I kept up doing,” Dana said. In college, “I was looking for ways to be more religiously involved. But I also had my parents at home, and we had Shabbat dinner every Friday night,” which did not leave much time for him to get involved with Jewish groups on campus.
Both Dana and his twin brother started at USC as architecture majors, though Arie later changed his major to religion. (His brother and his sister-in-law, who is also an architect, are now working on an expansion for the USC Chabad house.)
Dana’s family was not politically active when he was growing up. He was a teenager on Sept. 11, 2001, “which was a very transformative thing to happen your freshman year of high school,” Dana noted. He started reading up on the Middle East, terrorism and foreign affairs, before expanding into other topics.
“I started reading a lot of libertarian thinkers and philosophers and got into the idea of the free market [as] a great way to help individuals from all backgrounds earn their own success,” Dana explained. “Freedom — in that sense of letting people on their own choose how they want to create their own communities without external force — made me really interested in the political world.”
Apparently, it’s a value espoused by Steel as well: Years later, when she was elected to Congress, she joined the “Freedom Force,” a group of Republican members formed to counter Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s progressive “Squad.”
But first, at the State Board of Equalization, Dana received an education in big government. There’s “this big state agency,” Dana explained, that, in his view, could get in the way of “allow[ing] people to have the most freedom possible to live their lives the way they want to.”
At the same time, he was also receiving a new religious education. “I had this great idea that I was going to be an Orthodox Sephardic Jew,” Dana said. But there was no Sephardic community near where he was living, so he began learning again with Rabbi Wagner from USC. They had reconnected when Dana came to Chabad alumni events with a woman he was dating at the time.
“He had this incredible journey of really engaging in his Judaism very seriously and making it an important part of his life,” said Wagner, the USC rabbi. Dana and Wagner would study the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, together. “Learning those things drew me into starting to study chassidus more. And then over time, I was just like, ‘Oh, I think I think this is where I’m supposed to be,” he noted.
He began to observe Shabbat and keep kosher, which is when people close to him noticed his new observance. “With friends, it was a little bit harder than it was at work,” Dana recounted. “The standard thing is to go out to dinner, or [hang out on] Friday nights, and you can’t do any of those things anymore.”
At work, “it started out with me just turning off my phone on Friday evenings. I didn’t really say so much about it,” he recalled. “Then [Steel] asked me, ‘Hey, why do you wait and not answer your phone until Saturday night?’” [I responded] ‘Oh, because I’m starting to keep the Sabbath.’”
Last winter, Dana and Steel “already had a general understanding of many years,” he said. So when Orange County officials had to have an emergency press conference about the coronavirus, Steel knew not to call Dana. “It ended up being a Saturday morning press conference in Orange County, where they ended up announcing that there was going to be a state of emergency,” Dana explained. “I found out about it Saturday night. I was like, okay, it’s gonna be a busy week,” he said.
It ended up being not just a busy week but a busy year, as the virus spread and Steel’s campaign for Congress heated up. “It was a lot of work in those days. I was leaving barely enough time to get home, and I would just rush home and change quickly and go to synagogue — or not go to synagogue; I stayed at home because everything closed, which in a way makes it easier,” he said.
One silver lining of the pandemic was the Rosh Hashanah dinner where Dana met his soon-to-be wife. “Even during COVID,” said Wagner, “the right people come together.” Dana had been spending a lot of time with Wagner, with most other Jewish organizations not holding events. On Rosh Hashanah, his future wife Chana “just showed up at our door, looking for a place” to celebrate the holiday, Wagner recalled. “Of the very few guests there, two of them met and, thankfully, hit it off.”
They got married in December, and nine days later moved across the country to the first place Dana had ever lived outside of Los Angeles. About a week later, rioters stormed the Capitol.
Dana and his team were in Steel’s office, trying to get the congresswoman out of the Capitol complex — she had tested positive for the coronavirus that morning and did not want to infect her staffers. “We had doctor’s orders, of course, to get her out of the Capitol as fast as we could so that she could go isolate,” Dana said. But when he called the sergeant-at-arms’ office to ask for the best way out, the response was: “There is no safe way out at this time.” So Dana and the other staffers stayed in one wing of the office while Steel isolated in her personal office, keeping the door closed for the next 10 hours that they were trapped together. Her case ended up being mild, and no one else in the office got sick.
Insurrection aside, Dana has also missed the celebrations and events that typically mark the beginning of a new congressional session. He had to a hire an entirely new team, looking for people who “have experience on what the Hill is like” and understand things like ”what the schedule for a day is like, what do the votes mean, the procedural rules.” Back in Orange County, “there aren’t 2 a.m. votes on Friday night,” Dana explained. “Official business was a lot more regimented and scheduled.” Amid all the new things to learn, he at least knew that his boss understood why he could not be present during those rare Friday night votes.
The new job brings new policy areas for Dana to learn about, but “we’re trying to be focused on local issues anway,” he said. “The foreign policy side is probably the biggest single change,” he added, but “with the congresswoman being very involved in the Asian-American community,” she already had some experience in foreign affairs. Since coming to Washington, Steel has joined with other Asian American members of Congress to call out violence against the Asian American Pacific Islander community, including after the mass shooting at a series of Asian-owned massage parlors in Atlanta this week. “What happened in Atlanta last night was senseless and tragic, and unfortunately only adds to a long list of recent violent crimes against our Asian American and Pacific Islander community,” Steel said in a statement, before testifying yesterday at a congressional hearing on anti-Asian American discrimination.
According to Dana, Steel also sees collaboration with Israel as a priority. “Water issues are something that’s a huge deal in California, and we have hi-tech and biomedical innovation,” said Dana. “She’s talked a lot about trying to find priorities of places to work together with Israel and the United States to advance that type of innovative spirit and find solutions to those types of issues.”
Dana is excited to explore Washington’s Jewish community more as the weather improves and the pandemic subsides. “I’m really eager to see what the Jewish community is like,” Dana said. Capitol Hill is not known for having a large Orthodox community, but “we’ve had a very warm welcome from the community that there is.” On a typical Saturday, Dana normally walks across town to Chabad in Dupont Circle.
The lack of kosher restaurants in the District is also an adjustment, with the presence of just a single kosher meat restaurant, CharBar. But in some ways, that reminds Dana of home: “Orange County also had only one kosher restaurant.”