Sarah Hurwitz is a master of the written word who worked on several presidential campaigns, including John Kerry’s 2004 campaign and Hillary Clinton’s 2007 campaign, where she was the chief speechwriter. She subsequently became a speechwriter for both former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama. Along the way, Hurwitz, a Washington, D.C., resident, became more connected to her Jewish identity, and in 2020, she wrote a book titled “Here All Along” about rediscovering Judaism. Hurwitz was recently selected for American Jewish University’s Public Fellows Program, which empowers Jewish scholars to spread their work to a larger audience.
Part of the program at AJU has you attending public forums and doing public speaking. What’s your excitement level surrounding that opportunity?
I’m really looking forward to the public talk. I always love engaging with Jewish communities. It’s been one of the great joys in my life since leaving the White House to travel the country and the world and get to meet and learn from Jews from all backgrounds in all different types of communities. I just thoroughly enjoy it.
Can you tell me how you ended up as a White House speechwriter for the Obamas?
I got my start in politics as an intern in Vice President Al Gore’s speechwriting office in the summer of 1998. And the writers who I worked for helped me get my first couple of jobs after college… And then in 2007, I became Hillary Clinton’s chief speechwriter on her presidential campaign. When she conceded that race in 2008, I got hired to be a speechwriter for then Senator Obama, the Democratic nominee for President, and he won, which was thrilling. And I got to go to the White House where I was a speechwriter for him. But on the campaign, I had worked with Mrs. Obama on her Democratic National Convention speech, and we really hit it off. And during my first couple of years in the White House, while I was a speechwriter for President Obama, I would sometimes help Mrs. Obama with speeches. And I realized that I felt more at home in her voice, and I was passionate about the issues she was focusing on. So I decided to switch from being a speechwriter for the President to being Head Speechwriter for Mrs. Obama. And that’s what I did for the remaining six, six and a half years at the White House.
How did you start reconnecting with your Jewish heritage?
I grew up with a pretty minimal Jewish background. I went to Hebrew school, and my family went to shul on the High Holidays, but we weren’t a deeply engaged Jewish family. Fast forward 25 years to when I was in the White House, I randomly wound up taking an intro to Judaism course at the DC JCC and was just blown away by what I found. Here was 4000 years of wisdom on the human condition – on what it means to be a good person and live a worthy life and find profound spiritual connection. I just couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t seen any of this in the services I sporadically attended or the Hebrew school I went to as a child. So I started learning. I took more classes, I read hundreds of books, and I decided that after I left the White House, I wanted to write a book about Judaism to share with people the transformational wisdom that I had discovered in this tradition.
Can you tell me about the contents of the book and your process of writing it?
I found learning about Judaism as an adult to be quite challenging, because there were plenty of excellent intro books that covered the “how to,” the basic the nuts and bolts. And then there were these sophisticated academic books that focused on pretty narrow, esoteric aspects of Jewish tradition. And I had trouble finding the book I needed – one that covers the basics, but also dives deeply into the most radical, inspiring, transformational wisdom at the depths of the tradition. And I wanted to write something that did both, that would appeal to Jews of all kinds. When I was writing this book, I was imagining the readers would be Jews like me who didn’t grow up with a strong Jewish background. But I’ve actually gotten feedback from many quite traditionally observant Jews who say: “Actually, this book is for me. You have a fresh take on things, and you’ve clearly done your homework – you have so many endnotes! – and you clearly love this tradition as much as I do.” I also think the book appeals to a wide range of Jews because it covers a wide range of Jewish tradition, from Jewish sacred texts – Torah, Talmud, later commentaries – to God, ethics, holidays, lifecycle rituals and more.
Can you speak about how your Jewish identity impacts you in your daily life?
My Jewish identity is so fundamental to my existence in the world. It’s fundamental to how I treat other people, it’s fundamental to how I live my life, it shapes every aspect of who I am. It’s the focus of my career – I wrote my first book on Judaism, and I’m now working on a second book. Most of my speaking engagements are in the Jewish world, and when I travel to Jewish communities, I feel like I’m meeting members of my family – I truly view the Jewish people as a large extended family. And being part of this extraordinary people, both back through time and all around the world today, that’s at the very core of who I am.