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An Open Jewish Ear

Binyamin Rose, Washington DC

American presidents have made outreach to the Jewish community a priority ever since George Washington’s postinaugural visit to Rhode Island’s historic Touro Synagogue. So why did it take almost 200 years for a president to officially name a Jewish outreach director? We started with Jarrod Bernstein, director of Jewish outreach for the Obama administration, who invited us to the White House to share his thoughts and concerns.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

presidents“The Jewish community is a mile wide,” says Jarrod Bernstein, who on any given day navigates a rocky road to steer clear of what sometimes looks like a collision course between the diverse and disparate viewpoints of Jewish groups ranging from the left-wing J Street to center-right Orthodox organizations.

As the Obama administration’s director of Jewish outreach, Bernstein’s job is not to drive down a one-way street. While faithfully conveying the president’s positions on Israel and domestic issues of Jewish interest, he keeps an open ear to comments from the Jewish community, which he says is well-received at the highest levels.

“Anytime you get feedback from a community, positive or negative, it’s a good thing. The higher-ups here understand and appreciate that,” says Bernstein. “You want to have feedback because it shows people are interested and that’s a vital part of our democracy. Some of the issues we face in this country are very tough and there is merit to more than one side.”

When disagreements arise — and they do — he strives to handle them with a civility worthy of both the Jewish community and the White House. “Unfortunately the atmospherics out there are not always conducive to that, but we have a responsibility to work on that every single day.”

Our meeting took place in one of the ornately-decorated offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building just west of the White House. The office lighting was muted, with just enough natural light streaming in through tall windows draped with maroon-flowered curtains, color-coordinated perfectly with the gold-painted walls.

Bernstein’s bearing exudes a coexistence of geniality and a let’s-get-down-to-business approach. These vital personality characteristics hold him in good stead in his dealings with the People of the Book, who are sometimes characterized by that same book as stiff-necked and stubborn. 

 

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