Appreciating Jewish Life With Kinney Zalesne

Kinney Zalesne. Photo by Moshe Zusman

E. Kinney Zalesne, 57, is an American writer, political strategist and former business executive. She has served as counsel to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, as a senior strategist on two presidential campaigns and as general manager of corporate strategy at Microsoft. She is currently senior adviser to Harvard University’s GETTING-Plurality Initiative and a deputy national finance chair of the Democratic National Committee.

In Jewish Washington, she has served on the personnel committee of Adas Israel Congregation and is a past president of Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital. She is married with four children and lives in the District.

What got you started as a Jewish community volunteer?

When I moved back to Philadelphia after law school, I started a group within my downtown synagogue [Society Hill Synagogue] to revitalize Jewish life for people aged 25 to 35.

Nobody my age [was going to services] because that just wasn’t a thing that anybody did between being a child and having a child. So, we tried to revitalize Jewish life for people in that interim stage and it was very successful. We used to have Shabbat dinner and a discussion every few months and got more than 100 people each time after having zero people that age involved in that synagogue. I learned to lead services there and in the 30 years since I left Philadelphia, I still go back every year and lead Minchah on Yom Kippur.

What keeps you involved in the Jewish community?

I’ve always thought Jewish identity was kind of an underdog in American society. It’s so much better than a lot of people give it credit for. I always felt there was so much unappreciated and underappreciated value in Jewish life. So, I always wanted to help. I always appreciated what I got from it and I wanted to help close that gap so it wouldn’t be so alienating or elusive for other people.

You’ve been involved in the legal and technology world. How do they intersect?

I’ve always been interested in the systems that bring out the best in people, that curb our worst impulses and that help people get along and get the most out of their opportunities. It used to be the law that was the set of rules that organized all that and helped decide what the rules of society would be. Increasingly, it’s the tech companies who are deciding those things or having influence over those things. I’m doing some work at that intersection around the governance of innovation and the innovation of governance.

Please weigh in on the turmoil over judicial reform in Israel.

I think the crisis in Israel is deeply sad and painful. Netanyahu has had many opportunities to defuse, de-escalate and dilute this situation, but instead he has given in to the narrowest and most dangerous elements of his coalition. It’s a terrible blow to me as a defender of democracy, as a Jew and as a new homeowner in Jerusalem.

What are you passionate about these days in the Jewish world?

I’m on the board of the American affiliate of the National Library of Israel which is an amazing new entrant in the Jerusalem landscape. It’s a gorgeous new building right between the Knesset and the Israel Museum. It’s opening in October and it has some of the most extraordinary treasures of Jewish life ever.

As an informal adviser, I am rooting for a magnificent group of innovators in Israel who are pushing for a constituent assembly. This constitution solution could bring Israel back from the brink — and inspire other democracies at risk, including America’s.

I really admire the people who are putting it together, a very diverse group of Israeli citizens, secular, religious, Jewish, Arab and it’s women led. I really admire their spirit, their belief in democracy, their belief that Israeli citizens can do better together than they can apart.

What advice do you have for individuals who are interested in getting involved in Jewish community initiatives or organizations?

Don’t hesitate. There’s so many different ways to be involved, whether it’s political or cultural or social or educational. And there’s so much richness to be uncovered and so many challenges to be addressed and anyone who has passion, initiatives and energy will be welcome and will be rewarded. ■

Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer.

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