From Chevy Chase to the Middle East, Joel Rubin is always drawn back to Jewish causes

Joel and Nilmini Rubin during their July trip to Israel
Joel and Nilmini Rubin during their July trip to Israel (Photo courtesy of Joel Rubin)

Whereas many ambitious professionals tend to pick a lane and stick with it, Joel Rubin, vice mayor of the town of Chevy Chase, has found his footing in international diplomacy, national politics, local government and the fight to protect the Jewish community against white supremacy.

Rubin, 51, is serving his third term as vice mayor of the town of Chevy Chase, having been elected in 2017. His responsibilities in this role include working on new development at the town’s 4-H center, the conversion of some parking lots to park space and working on a policy to eliminate gas-powered leaf blowers in the town. One of his foremost priorities, he said, was “making this a safe community, and ensuring that we’re maintaining civil society and trust, and maintaining a sense of safety and community here,” said Rubin.

Rubin and his family were in Israel this month for vacation and to celebrate the bat mitzvah of his daughter, Araliya. The visit coincided with President Joe Biden’s recent trip to the Middle East, and Rubin, a senior State Department official during the Obama years, said he was in touch with the administration both before and during Biden’s visit.

He said he is “supportive of the way the administration talks about the relationship between the U.S. and Israel.” He added that he encouraged the Biden people “to engage the Palestinian issue with empathy, as the president is incredibly gifted at, and to demonstrate, as he is, that he cares about people.”

Rubin has “a breadth of accomplishments and skills which allow him to operate, as he has throughout his entire career, in any number of different jobs,” said Aaron David Miller, a veteran U.S. Middle East diplomat and longtime friend of Rubin. “Much of his work has been done in and around Jewish causes.”

Rubin is a member of Adas Israel Congregation. He and his wife, Nilmini, have three daughters, Renuka, Araliya and Bhavana.

A fifth-generation Pittsburgher, Rubin grew up in its Squirrel Hill neighborhood, around the corner from Tree of Life Congregation. In fact, his parents were present the night before the 2018 shooting, though they were members of a different synagogue that worshiped at Tree of Life.

Rubin attended Hebrew school growing up before enrolling at Brandeis University, where he earned a degree in politics while also studying elementary education and Near Eastern and Judaic studies.

Rubin served two separate stints at the State Department, the first of which was as a career officer under the George W. Bush administration from 2002 to 2005, with much of his work focused on the war in Iraq and democracy promotion in the Arab world.

“That was outstanding and inspiring to engage directly with Arab civil society across more than a dozen Arab countries,” Rubin said, listing Morocco, Tunisia and Bahrain as some of the countries he worked in.

Rubin also recalled a trip to Egypt, driving to the edge of the Gaza Strip to see the tunnels being used by Hamas to smuggle in weapons. At a rest stop on the way, he saw television reports of Saddam Hussein being captured.

“And I look around, and I realize this may not be the best place for me to be right now,” said Rubin with a laugh. “It was very tense across the entire region.”

He left the State Department to work in the Senate due in part to what he called “the false pretenses for our invasion of Iraq, which was the single greatest foreign policy disaster that the United States has engaged in in my lifetime, if not since Vietnam.”

Rubin later served at State again under Obama from 2014 to 2015, this time as a deputy assistant secretary for legislative affairs. In that role, he served as the point person representing a Democratic administration to a Republican House of Representatives, during the fight over the Iran nuclear deal.

“I’ve worked on how to start a war, wrongly, and then I worked on how to prevent a war, through diplomacy, correctly,” Rubin said.
Rubin left the State Department to run for Congress in Maryland’s 8th district, he said, “ultimately losing to my now good friend Jamie Raskin.”

Rubin later served as the Jewish outreach director for the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign.

“It was a phenomenal experience,” Rubin said of the Sanders campaign. “The Sanders campaign provided an opportunity for young Jewish progressive activists to get involved at a high level on issues related to Israel and Palestine and peace that was unique, and had never been felt before.”

After Biden won the primary, Rubin served as a policy volunteer for the Biden campaign, focusing his attention on making the argument to progressive voters on why a Biden presidency would be a positive thing for Jews in Israel and the cause of peace.

“By and large, he’s a Democrat with a capital ‘D,’ there’s no doubt about it,” said Miller. “And I might describe him as a sort of an interpreter and translator to both the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party.”

By the end of 2020, Rubin began serving as executive director of the American Jewish Congress, where he worked until 2022.

“The primary work focused on raising the alarm bells on the dangers to the Jewish community posed by white supremacist activities in the U.S.,” Rubin said. “So countering white supremacist extremism.”

This included producing public reports on online extremism and “connecting those dots to the Jan. 6 insurrection.” He added that he spent significant time on what he called the antisemitic rhetoric of Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, and on her use of “social media hate platforms.”

“All politics is local,” he said. “Things that we do matter here where you live, as much as overseas, and staying connected to that, being grounded in that, makes for better decisions at the top.”

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