“Ice cream and cake, ice cream and cake…” are the words repeated throughout the video that Joel Nied put together as an invitation to his son’s fifth birthday party. The short, which is extremely entertaining, has clarity, energy, rhythm and packs a punch, much like Nied’s style when he wants to see a project succeed. His digital pursuits have become a hobby. His three children, Evan, 9, Simone, 6 and Rand, 2 remain his passion. And, his lifetime love for politics has revealed itself in his lobbying efforts for AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
In 1971, when Nied was three years old, his family moved from Pikesville, Md. to Jacksonville, Fla., which he describes much like Tidewater. The St. Johns River runs through the town located on the Atlantic Ocean. The city had two Conservative temples and two Reform synagogues, one where his family belonged. As a member of Congregation Ahavath Chesed, Nied attended Hebrew School on Mondays and Thursdays and Sunday school on the weekends through his Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation years.
From the ages of six through 13, he participated in synagogue sponsored Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, ultimately earning the rank of Eagle Scout. Although considered small compared to other national troops, his was known for its members’ high achieving performance. Nied laughs, “We crushed the other troops in orienteering and first aid competitions. We didn’t do so well in archery.” He continues humorously, describing the exploits of “merit badge acquisition business” and the troop’s “Olive Drab Revolution” organized to overwhelm the counselor bureaucracy.
During his teen years, Nied joined the Jacksonville Area Federation Temple Youth (JAFTY), a local division of NFTY, the Reform youth movement. As a member of a small delegation, he attended regional conventions and met many participants from Miami and Atlanta. Nied says, “The conferences were my first exposure to the Jewish community on a national level. Having the opportunity to gather with hundreds of other Jewish kids was exhilarating.”
Involved in extracurricular activities in high school, he lost weight to wrestle in the lowest weight class possible. “It was empowering to test my physical limits despite being dehydrated and malnourished,” Nied quips. “I looked like a famine victim in my National Honor Society portrait.” Each week, the varsity team members took on challengers to keep their first-string positions. “If you were the best, you stayed on the varsity team that week. It was a simple Hobbesian system,” he says.
Accepted to University of Pennsylvania early decision, Nied found that almost half of the school was Jewish. “For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to seek out Jewish activities. Just living on campus was enough. A member of the fraternity, TEP, he became president during his senior year. He also rowed for the school’s Crew team, practicing hours on the Schuylkill River by Boat House Row.
After graduation, he lived for two years in New York City, working in the marketing department of Coopers and Lybrand’s national headquarters. His interview included writing a timed essay, which proved to be so impressive, he was able to secure the job without a marketing background.
Finally ready for a new intellectual challenge, Nied became a law school student at Emory. While living in Atlanta, he volunteered for the Democratic Party of Georgia, taking on several profiles. In 1996, he acted as treasurer and general counsel for Ron Slotin’s U.S. Congressional campaign. Knowing many staffers on Al Gore’s advance team during the 1997 Presidential election, Nied became a volunteer and was tasked with preventing voter intimidation. His greatest thrill, however, was driving in the Vice President’s motorcade from the Atlanta airport to the Olympic stadium. His love for politics intensified during these years.
In 1994, in his third year of law school, Nied met his wife, Emily Caplan, while he worked at the law school library reference desk. The couple dated in Atlanta for two years before he graduated and moved to Philadelphia.
Employed with a multinational law firm, Nied volunteered as a Division Committeeman for the Philadelphia ward system. Appointed and then elected to represent a center city district, he was involved in “big city politics.” During the elections, the voting machines were stationed behind a curtain, a vote was cast by pulling a lever and a card was dispensed. One of Nied’s responsibilities was to drive a backup copy of the polling station results to the election board offices, while the police drove the original record. He was also tasked with observing the ballot counting.
Married in September 1999, the couple moved to Virginia Beach in January 2002 to live close to family. Today as a partner at LeClairRyan, Nied finds his work as a transactional attorney exciting. He says, “It takes negotiation, diplomacy, intuition, financial expertise and game theory skills to add value to a collaborative effort so that all participants are happy.” He most enjoys the challenge of crafting the strategy. “I look for the win-win in every deal,” he emphasizes.
As a volunteer serving on the Super Sunday Cabinet, Nied was inspired to visit Israel for the first time when he was 36 years old. The National Federation was putting on an event called Tel Aviv One. Traveling with 1,000 participants, he discovered, also on the trip, were friends from his childhood, college and law school years.
Upon his return, he felt compelled to build a sense of Jewish community among his peers in Tidewater, so he worked with Jeff Stein to “lobby” the local Federation for a young adult program similar to one in Greensboro, N. C. Under Anna Goldenberg’s guidance, he and David Cardon became the first co-chairs of Hineni, the rebirth of YAD.
Nied’s knowledge of Tidewater’s local community has developed by sitting on the boards of Beth Sholom Village, Jewish Family Service, Hebrew Academy of Tidewater and the Men’s campaign for Federation. In 2003, his first blush with AIPAC came from a meeting at Ann and Bobby Copeland’s home. Three years later while reading the Beth El Bulletin, he learned that Ed Miller, a college friend and fraternity brother was coming to the area as an AIPAC speaker.
At the meeting’s conclusion, Nied turned to Miller and said, “Let me know how I can help you.” Two days later, he got a phone call from AIPAC staffer, Jeremy Becker. He divulges, “I decided to get actively involved because I wanted to be a voice that could make a difference instead of a just a person with a strong opinion, talking to friends.” He truly believes that by building personal relationships with elected officials, his conversations have been a source of truth for the congressional representatives. “I embarked on a huge learning curve to understand the nuances reflected in each of the issues that are paramount to the U.S.-Israel relationship. Because I am able to access the facts from AIPAC’s website, participate in conference calls and receive the well written materials, I can share information beyond media rhetoric.
Nied has traveled to Israel twice since his first trip. He clearly articulates, “The State of Israel has changed the world’s perception of the Jews. It exists today as a sovereign nation built out of a people’s will to exist in the late 1880’s. It is the story of pioneers working the land to build lush green landscapes and cities out of sand dunes. To mischaracterize the nation’s reason for existence is to do a disservice to its people. Israel is not compensation to the Jews for the wrong done to them during the Holocaust in the 1940’s. It is the manifestation of the strength and determination of a people that have willed the country’s survival.”
“Keep calm and carry on”—a British slogan from the beginning of World War Two, is dramatically displayed on Nied’s cell phone when it lights up. Carrying the historical quote of a time remembered, he has no reason to “wrestle” with his decision to be an active member of the Jewish community. As his own experiences have proven, the Jewish world remains small, and he is proud and humbled to continue to advocate for its presence.
by Karen Lombart