In the introduction to her book, Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality and a Deeper Connection to Life – In Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There), former White House speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz describes her decision to reexamine Judaism at 36, after largely abandoning the faith since her bat mitzvah.
“I know I disappoint people when I give them honest answers to their questions about what prompted me to start learning about Judaism as an adult,” she wrote. “I know they’re expecting some kind of major life crisis, or the culmination of a long spiritual journey. But the truth is much less exciting: At the age of thirty-six, I broke up with a guy I had been dating, found myself with a lot of time on my hands that had previously been spent with him, and happened to hear about an Instruction to Judaism class at the Washington D.C., Jewish Community Center.”
What began as a way to pass the time and learn about her heritage became a life-changing experience as Hurwitz learned that Judaism was so much more than the lessons she had begrudgingly learned in Hebrew School.
“What I found in that class just blew me away,” Hurwitz said. “It turns out that Judaism had profound wisdom to offer about how to be a good person, how to live a meaningful life, and how to find deep spiritual connection.”
Hurwitz worked at the White House from 2009 to 2017, first as a senior speechwriter for President Barack Obama and then as the head speechwriter for First Lady Michelle Obama. She will be speaking at 2 p.m. EDT Wednesday, July 29, on CHQ Assembly.
Her talk, “God, Politics and Lessons from a Jewish Journey in the White House and Beyond” is part of Week Five’s Interfaith Lecture Series, “The Feminine Spirit.”
After her powerful re-introduction to Judaism, Hurwitz began to learn everything she could about the religion.
“I was so moved by the radical, countercultural approach of this ancient tradition — and amazed by how urgently relevant it felt,” she said. “So I took more classes, read hundreds of books, studied with rabbis, and decided to write an account of what I had found.”
In Here All Along, which came out last year, Hurwitz doesn’t claim religious or academic expertise. Instead, she set out to communicate her faith using the skills of a political speechwriter.
“(I approach Judaism) as a speechwriter trying to find its beating heart for myself and others — the places where we can live and feel Judaism’s wisdom in our lives, the parts of Judaism that feel like its deepest, most important truths,” she wrote. “I’m essentially trying to write the book I wish I’d had five years ago, when I first started learning about Judaism as an adult.”
Exploring her faith while working at the White House was an encouraging experience.
“The Obama White House embraced diversity in every form,” Hurwitz said. “My colleagues were incredibly supportive and very proud of me for engaging more deeply with Judaism.”
She recalls explaining to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough that she was planning to attend a silent Jewish meditation retreat over the holidays.
“I wondered if he would think that was a little weird,” Hurwitz said. “But he was thrilled. ‘Good for you!’ he said. ‘I’m so proud of you for doing that!’”
She hopes her talk can give Chautauquans of all faiths something to think about, particularly in terms of their understanding of the word “God.”
“I think Judaism has a great deal of ethical and spiritual wisdom that’s relevant for people of all faith backgrounds and none at all,” she said. “Jewish tradition has a wonderfully humble and non-dogmatic approach to the Divine; we realize that we’re talking about something far beyond what our tiny human minds can neatly define, so there’s tremendous diversity in Jewish conceptions of God.”
Hurtwitz’s faith has been a source of moral clarity for her in the last three and a half years, and she has continued to let it guide her through the uncertainty and conflict of the past few months.
“While Jewish law is complex and nuanced, it is unambiguous in its abhorrence of cruelty, corruption, malicious lying, and abuse of the vulnerable,” she said.
This program is made possible by the Jack and Elizabeth Gellman and Zaretsky Family Fund.