Sarah Hurwitz, a former White House speechwriter for the Obamas, spoke to students about her time in the White House, recent events with Israel and Hamas and her Jewish faith during a Tuesday evening talk with University of Wisconsin-Madison students at the UW Hillel Foundation.
“Being a really proud, open Jew at a time like this is incredibly important,” Hurwitz told The Daily Cardinal. “I'm really grateful to have the chance to be a proud, open public Jew on campuses and to hopefully inspire Jewish students and all students to really appreciate [their] Jewish classmates and to appreciate [the] Jewish tradition.”
Hurwitz worked in the White House from 2009 to 2017, first as a senior speechwriter for former President Barack Obama and later as the head speechwriter for former First Lady Michelle Obama.
She was previously involved in the 2008 presidential primary campaign as chief speechwriter for Hillary Clinton and senior speechwriter for Obama. She also worked for Sen. John Kerry, General Wesley Clark and Sen. Tom Harkin.
It was after her time in the White House that she reevaluated her spiritual journey. In 2019, she published her first novel, “Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life–in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There),” in which she discusses rediscovering her faith.
Hurwitz grew up going to Hebrew school and was bat mitzvahed, but she described herself as “the quintessential lapsed Jew” up until an unlikely reintroduction to Judaism.
At 36 years old and following a break up, she heard about an intro to Judaism class at her local Jewish community center and signed up “on a whim.”
“Everyone's like, ‘Oh, you're on a spiritual journey.’ I was not. It could have been a karate class or ceramics class,” Hurwitz said to laughter. In spite of that, she found the class mind-blowing.
“This was 4,000 years of wisdom on the human condition. What it means to be a good person, what it means to live a worthy life, what it means to find profound spiritual connection. I just felt like, ‘where has this been all my life?’”
She read hundreds of books, but nothing that spoke to someone like her, who wanted both “life-changing” wisdom and “the basics” of Judaism.
She sought out to write something charting her journey and is working on a second book that will further unpack her Jewish identity.
UW Hillel hosted the event, “A Jewish Journey in the White House,” in partnership with the Center for Interfaith Dialogue.
Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin was present alongside various UW-Madison administrators, including Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori Reesor, Deputy Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion LaVar Charleston and Dean of Students Christina Olstad. Kathy Blumenfeld, Wisconsin Department of Administration secretary, was also in attendance.
Early in the conversation, Hillel leadership and Hurwitz addressed the recent conflict between Hamas and Israel.
Approximately 1,200 Israelis and more than 1,000 people in Gaza have been killed since Saturday after Hamas, the ruling militant organization in the Gaza Strip designated by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization, carried out an attack in southern and central Israel. The Israeli Defense Force shortly after declared war and ordered a siege of Gaza.
“So many Jews in America have so many friends and family members in Israel, and it is really devastating and wrenching,” Hurwitz said at the start of the discussion.
She said it’s been “devastating” having to repeat throughout the day “that kidnapping toddlers and killing babies and raping women is not resistance" and to have to "again and again" condemn "the celebration of the death of civilians on any side of any conflict."
UW-Madison has faced pressure from Israeli and Palestinian communities on campus to put out a statement regarding the Israel-Gaza war. Mnookin declined to comment to the Cardinal following Hurwitz’s speech.
Mnookin later condemned the attacks in a Wednesday afternoon statement. She noted the “exceedingly fraught” nature of Middle East politics and that she is skeptical “those in roles like mine should frequently comment on global or world events.”
“I mourn for those lost. I pray for those injured and abducted. And I fear the terrifying inevitability of a great many further deaths, of Israelis and Palestinians, of civilians and soldiers. I worry, too, that these devastating developments will fan the global flames of both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, making peace and justice in the region even more elusive,” Mnookin wrote.
Hurwitz condemned rising antisemitism and less overt microaggressions. Last year, the Anti-Defamation League recorded the highest number of antisemitic incidents on record since they started tracking them in 1979. The group tabulated 3,697 antisemitic incidents — the third time in the past five years the yearly total topped the highest number ever recorded.
Hurwitz noted that oftentimes, when people think of antisemitism, they recall violent acts or picture swastika vandalisation.
But another form of antisemitism is rising, she said. “[The] kind that says, ‘Look, we're not going to hurt Jews. We're not going to kill Jews. We just ask that Jews kind of change themselves to fit whatever we find acceptable,'” Hurwitz said.
She plans to next visit Northwestern University as part of her campus tour with Hillel.
Rachel Hale is a senior staff writer who covers state politics and campus events. Before getting involved with The Daily Cardinal, she was a culture editor at Moda Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @rachelleighhale.