Alyza Lewin, a longtime lawyer, is co-founder and partner at Lewin & Lewin, LLP, and president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, where she advocates for religious liberty and the rights of the Jewish community. The Kesher Israel Congregation (The Georgetown Synagogue) member has also argued several important cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including Zivotofsky v. Kerry (the “Jerusalem Passport” case), which eventually led to Americans born in Jerusalem having the ability to list Israel as their birth country on their U.S. passports.
What are the things that you do as an attorney and president of a law center?
I’m president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and a partner in Lewin & Lewin as a father-daughter law partnership. So, my partner is my father … A lot of the work that we did, involved religious liberty … I realized that there’s a need to make sure that society recognizes that Jews are not just a religion — we’re people with a shared history and a shared heritage and a shared collective memory and shared ancestry — and that we have every right to live our lives, celebrating that history proudly. We have a right to fully engage in society without having to hide that part of who we are, that part of what defines us as the Jewish people. There’s a need for society to recognize that the laws in this country also protect Jews from this kind of harassment and discrimination which targets us on the basis of our shared ancestry.
How did you get involved in this line of legal work?
It was really baked into my DNA. I grew up in a family with a both a strong sense of Jewish identity and a strong passion for working to protect Jewish civil rights and protect the Jewish community. I grew up in a home where my father, Nathan Lewin, who is a litigator, always devoted a very significant portion of his professional time and expertise to trying to ensure that Jews in America could practice their faith freely and with pride. So, for example, my father’s argued 28 cases before the Supreme Court. They include the right to wear a yarmulke in the military and the right of Chabad to put up the large menorahs in the public square. My father and I have had a long partnership together for over 22 years.
Why is this work so meaningful to you?
My father is a Sugihara survivor. He and his parents fled Poland in 1939, but three of his grandparents perished in the Holocaust. I’ve always recognized that it’s good fortune or a bit of a miracle that I ended up being born in the United States with all the opportunity that has provided. Together with gratitude, I’ve always felt a tremendous sense of responsibility. I have watched and learned from my parents. I was raised to feel that if I’m blessed with opportunity, with skills and talents, then I want to be able to use those in some way to help support the Jewish people.
Can you tell me about your experiences with the “Jerusalem Passport” Supreme Court case?
That case taught me some of the most important life lessons … Lesson number one: It taught me to have the confidence to push myself outside my comfort zone. As I mentioned, my father had argued 28 cases before the Supreme Court, this was going to be my first. My father and the client encouraged me to do it, but I was not sure that I was ready to step into his shoes. I waited to make that decision until the last possible moment … In the end, we lost. The court ruled against us … Lesson number two: I learned to never ever give up because if you persevere, you can turn what may appear to be your greatest defeat into an amazing success. That is what happened here. Eighteen years after we filed our lawsuit (five years after the Supreme Court defeat), we got the policy changed and Ambassador [David] Friedman presented our client with the very first U.S. passport to officially list Israel as the place of birth for a US citizen born in Jerusalem … And lesson number three: We must always have faith. This case taught me that in our lifetime, we only see and witness a very small moment of time. If we are fortunate enough, we will live long enough to see the arc of history bend so that we’ll be able to understand that what in the moment may have appeared as defeat — is really the beginning of victory. When the Supreme Court ruled against us, it held that the President of the United States has the exclusive authority to recognize foreign sovereigns. That decision paved the way for President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Golan Heights as being in Israel. I’m grateful that I lived long enough to see what I had thought was defeat be converted into victory.
What is your outlook on the future as we head into the New Year?
Sadly, right now at the end of this year, [there is] a tremendous demand for the services that we provide at the Brandeis Center. We’ve seen, especially with our focus on the university campuses, antisemitism is spreading like wildfire. And so, one of the things that we’re going to be working on in the coming year is growing the Brandeis Center to be able to address the dramatic increase in the demand for our services to try and ensure that every student and every faculty member and staff member on campus that’s experiencing antisemitic harassment and discrimination is given the support they need. And to try and better educate the administrators on those campuses to recognize and see the antisemitism and to take effective steps to address that harassment and discrimination so that the campuses will once again become truly safe welcoming spaces for everyone.