Spiritual late bloomer goes digging to discover what was ‘here all along’

by | Jan 16, 2020 | Other News

Janet Mercadante and Sarah Hurwitz.

Former Obama White House speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz came to Temple Emanuel to sign books and share what she learned on her post-White House Jewish journey on Sunday, December 8. The Lee and Bernard Jaffe Family Jewish Book Festival and the Milton “Mickey” Kramer Scholar-in-Residence Fund’s Tidewater Together series brought Hurwitz to town. Her book is called, Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life In Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There).

Elaine Luria and Sarah Hurwitz.

At the pre-event book signing, the affable new author answered questions about the candidates she wrote speeches for while expressing delight with Virginia Beach’s relaxed coastal vibe. “This is such a nice contrast to D.C.,” says Hurwitz.

Hurwitz answered questions and received high praise for making Judaism accessible to more people. “I used parts of your book in my High Holiday service,” Ohef Sholom Temple’s Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg said to Hurwitz.
“Is Hillary Clinton as demanding as they say? How about Michelle Obama?” a community member asked.

“Yes,” said Hurwitz, traversing nimbly from institutions of Judaism to First Lady speak. “Anybody who cares about what they do is going to be demanding.”

In the social hall where brunch was served, Janet Mercadante introduced the Harvard Law School graduate and fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School, before leading a conversation about her transition from White House speechwriter to an architect of Judaism re-imagined.

In addition to thanking everyone for coming out on a Sunday, Hurwitz referred to herself as a ‘big fan’ of Congresswoman Elaine Luria, whose presence she graciously acknowledged.

One of Mercadante’s first questions was about the author’s jump from speech writer to writing a book about Judaism. Hurwitz acknowledged that the move from Michelle Obama’s speech writer to penning a book about Judaism wasn’t what one would expect. White House colleagues’ thinly veiled responses were, “Ok, wow, well that’s not what I thought.”

It took the perfect spiritual storm.

“I grew up kind of like maybe a lot of you. For me, Judaism was too dull. Incomprehensible. High Holidays, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and a boring seder. Three holidays, that was Judaism,” said Hurwitz. “I thought this is boring and I don’t get it and it seems oppressive and stale. So, I had my Bat Mitzvah and that was it. I was done. I kind of walked away from Judaism. I thought if I want to find meaning or spiritual connection I’ll have to look elsewhere because clearly, it’s not in Judaism.

“Then, when I was 36, I had just broken up with a guy I was dating, and I had all this time on my hands. I was anxious and bored. I happened to get this e-mail for an introduction to Judaism class. I signed up just on a whim. I was not in a spiritual crisis. I was not on an existential journey…just looking to fill my time, it could have been a karate class. I figured I’ll learn something about Judaism and get out of my apartment. Fine.

“Well, I was blown away by so much profound wisdom and insight on how to be a good person and how to lead a worthy life. I thought, ‘where has this been all my life?’”

She read books, studied with rabbis.

“American Judaism doesn’t expose us to the amazing parts and then wonder why people walk away. I could not believe what I was finding Learning about Judaism was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” said Hurwitz.

“Sarah’s background and perspective about the meaning of Jewish life was very poignant to me,” says Congresswoman Elaine Luria. “I’m looking forward to reading the book…I’ve even thought about sharing it with a cousin of mine. We’ve had this conversation. We sent our children to Hebrew school and Sunday school, we carry on the same traditions that we grew up in, but it’s hard for me to answer the questions behind ‘why.’ After hearing about her research for her book and all the things she brought together, it looks like this is going to be a great read.”

Here All Along addresses the spiritual late bloomer’s vision for something missing in Jewish literacy. She wanted to write the ‘why to,’ not just another ‘how to.’ There was no shortage of books from esoteric scholars or “How to do Shabbat.” “No wonder,” mused Hurwitz, “that young people run off to Burning Man.”

Here All Along is the book they want, and she needs. Her hope was to unearth all that Judaism had to offer and satisfy young people with legitimate emotional, moral, and spiritual yearnings. Things like bringing light to what Judaism offered about God, death (afterlife) and mourning. The deeper truths that Judaism has to offer.

“I always knew I was a good person,” said Hurwitz. But I wasn’t a great person.”

“I’m more careful about my speech and how I show up for people,” she says. “Gossip is a real thing…Judaism demands the ministry of presence. When someone is in need, you actually fly to that person and show up for them.”

– Lisa Richmon

To learn more about the Milton “Mickey” Kramer Scholar in Residence Fund of the Congregation Beth El Foundation’s Tidewater Together series, including more upcoming events, visit JewishVa.org/TidewaterTogether.