Nathan Diament has been serving the Jewish community for over 25 years as the executive director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, where he has played a vital role in advocating for topics of interest to the community, including antisemitism, U.S.-Israel relations, religious freedoms and much more. Diament has also worked with both the Obama and Trump administrations to help advise the federal government on faith-based initiatives and faith-based violence.
Can you tell me how you began working at OU and your career progression with them?
As a kid and through high school and in college, I was always interested in politics. I was also interested in serving the Jewish community … the two came together when the OU was looking to launch a political advocacy division. I joined OU in 1996, though OU did not have a Washington, D.C., office at the time, so I spent a lot of time traveling back and forth. And soon after, I said to them, ‘Look, if we’re serious about this, I really need to be on the ground in Washington.’ Well, early January will be the 25th anniversary of opening the OU Washington office.
You’ve worked alongside multiple presidential administrations. Can you tell me about those experiences?
I would say the common denominator between the two was that the American society and American government are places which really respect a role for religious communities and religious voices at the policymaking table. The work I did and the role that I played serving on the Obama administration’s Faith Based Advisory Committee was about ensuring that religious organizations could partner effectively with the federal government … That advisory group was focused on trying to make sure that federal policy allows for synagogues and churches and other religious institutions to be partnered with the federal government in serving community needs. The task force with Homeland Security during the Trump administration was the other side of the coin if you will, in which there was already a rise in faith targeted violence, not only antisemitic attacks against Jews, but attacks on other religious groups as well … and that task force was focused on making recommendations on how the government could more effectively protect communities from discrimination and harassment. Unfortunately, fast forwarding now to where we’re at, at the end of 2023, there’s even more of a need for that, particularly for the Jewish community.
Given the current climate in the U.S. relating to antisemitism, what have your efforts looked like lately?
We’ve been involved in a lot of aspects of the current crisis. It’s ranged from meeting with the leaders of the federal government, everybody from the president to the attorney general to the FBI director to the Homeland Security secretary just over the past month or so. The secretary of education as well, to talk about what needs to be done to respond to the wave of antisemitism and to deter more acts of antisemitism. Obviously, there’s more that needs to be done because the wave is continuing to crash upon our community … We met with the secretary of education about three weeks ago now, and what we’ve seen since then is the Education Department launched a number of investigations into prominent universities about their failure to protect Jewish students as they are required to by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. We worked with the Homeland Security Department in terms of them surging resources, both in terms of threat detection and also in terms of supporting local police. And then we’ve also been working aggressively with Congress. Tomorrow, the House Education Committee is having a hearing about antisemitism on campuses, and they’ve called the presidents of Harvard, MIT and Penn to appear before the committee. We worked very closely with the chairperson of the committee to put that hearing together … So, it’s been more than a full-time focus of our work since Oct. 7.
Supporting Israel has been an important piece of what you and the OU do. How has that changed over the past couple of weeks and months?
I would say since Oct. 7, it’s intensified. Obviously, the Orthodox segment of the Jewish community has long been a very passionate pro-Israel community – we probably have proportionately more people that have family members living in Israel and have more people traveling back and forth to Israel. And so, since Oct. 7, we’ve been very intensely focused on engaging with the White House and Congress to keep them in Israel’s corner. We’re grateful that overall, that’s where President Biden and his team have stayed, allowing Israel to do what it needs to do to eradicate Hamas and to not allow what happened on Oct. 7 to happen again. In fact, several national Jewish organizations have called for this week to be a national mobilization week by the American Jewish community, to flood Congress with phone calls and emails in support of Israel. And OU is the lead organization in the Orthodox community to make that happen.
What’s the personal importance of being able to help shape and pass important pieces of federal legislation, like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which helped the Jewish community?
I would say on a personal level, it’s very rewarding to be able to work in a job which combines my interest in politics and policy with a goal of being able to serve my own community. Two areas which are of existential importance to the Jewish community in general, and certainly the Orthodox community, are religious freedom because we are a minority faith in the United States, and so in order to be able to work as an Orthodox Jewish community, there needs to be policy that really allows for people to exercise their religious freedom as they wish. Then the flip side of that, which relates to security and combating antisemitism, is you need to be able to exercise your freedom of worship, with a freedom from fear. And so, the two things that you mentioned, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other pieces of religious liberty legislation that I’ve worked on, and then also setting up the security grant program, are two aspects of what our community needs to flourish.