Matt Nosanchuk had recently logged another busy week.
There was the organizing of a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice and 19 leaders of the American Jewish community two weeks ago. Now, Nosanchuk is working on President Barack Obama’s upcoming Rosh Hashanah message.
In July, Nosanchuk, 48, was named associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement for Jewish Outreach, better known as the White House Jewish liaison. He is the fourth person to hold this position in the Obama administration. Change in the position is not uncommon. Former President George W. Bush had seven such Jewish liaisons.
Nosanchuk is a member of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation and comes to his new position with a strong civil rights track record. He is openly gay and lives with his partner in Silver Spring.
“Matt has been involved in a wide range of issues from gun control to civil liberties,” said Rabbi Sid Schwarz, Adat Shalom’s founding rabbi. “He is as smart as they come, is a good listener and has a big heart. His deep commitment to Jewish life makes him an inspired choice to be the White House liaison to the Jewish community.”
From 2009 to 2012, Nosanchuk, an attorney educated at Stanford, was a top staffer in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. He helped shape the Obama administration’s challenge to Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. That act, known also as DOMA, was successfully challenged and nullified thus opening the way for extending federal rights to same-sex couples.
Nosanchuk, who has been prominent in furthering the president’s gay rights policies, also oversaw the implementation of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act, passed in 2009. This policy expanded hate crimes to include those motivated by sexual orientation, gender identity, gender and disability.
He was working then in 2012 for the Department of Homeland Security and held the position until moving over to the White House Office of Public Engagement.
“Matt’s an adult, well experienced in the administration and a veteran political organizer,” said Steve Rabinowitz of Rabinowitz Communications. “If he came to the job not knowing every letter of the alphabet soup that is the American Jewish community, he also came in knowing everything about shilichut [being an emissary]. I would much rather have it that way than someone who knew every Jew but didn’t know how to be a liaison. He’s great. I can’t say enough good about him.”
Coming before Nosanchuk to the office in the Obama Administration were Danielle Borin, Jarrod Bernstein and Zach Kelly.
Every major affinity group has such a representative, so if the Jewish community did not have one, “we’d ask why not,” said Nosanchuk in an interview with WJW.
“The easiest way to describe what I do is that we’re the front door to the White House,” he said. “We’re the interface between the White House and the public on important issues. I have the honor of representing the president and administration before the Jewish community. My role is to foster, engage and promote a two-way dialogue with the community on issues of importance to the Jewish community and to the president.”
Nosanchuk is hardly a stranger to issues of importance to the Jewish world. Within the Jewish community, he said, is a long history of social justice work. He also talked of the diversity within the Jewish community and the complexity of issues and priorities that arise when advancing a cause such as civil rights or employment nondiscrimination or even marriage equality.
“I’ve had a chance to think about that Jewish diversity as we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington,” he said. “There is a historic alliance between Jews and African Americans. I am looking forward to commemorating and continuing that alliance.”
Nosanchuk called the struggle for LGBT civil rights “the defining civil rights movement in the 21st century. The progress we’ve made in less than a decade is breathtaking in its pace. There is, of course, a lot more to do.”
It also wasn’t long after taking the office that Secretary Kerry was working to bring Israelis and Palestinians together for meaningful peace talks. Bringing Kerry together with American Jewish leaders, whom he called “key community stakeholders [in Israel],” falls squarely within his responsibilities.
“Secretary Kerry is strongly committed to pursuing peace and to engage people who care deeply about peace in Israel,” he said. “It is critical that people are informed so that they can be informed of the strong commitment towards peace from the secretary.”
He added, “I’m working here because I have always believed that Barack Obama’s priorities were entirely in sync with the Jewish community, and I am fortunate to have come on board after his Israel trip, which was a home run and uniformly praised throughout the community, as well as at a time when domestic priorities — from immigration reform to gun violence reduction — dovetail with those priorities of the Jewish community.”
Another key priority Nosanchuk pointed to is comprehensive immigration reform.
“As American Jews, the vast majority of us are descended from immigrants,” he said. “We are keenly aware as Jews, given our historic commitment to social justice, that we’ve had incredible opportunities in this country. We’re not pulling the ladder away from people. We’re there to make sure the ladder is there for others to gain the social opportunities we’ve had. This is an issue where the president’s priorities dovetail with the Jewish community’s priorities.”
On Israel, he said, “That as Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren said, ‘The U.S.-Israel relationship has never been as strong and there is an unprecedented level of cooperation on military and security issues.’ ”
Jarrod Bernstein, who held the position in the Obama administration from October 2011 to last February, said that the best part of the job is that no two days are the same.
“You can be in a meeting about Middle East peace one day, and then working through the quiet diplomacy of the national security staff around the president’s Chanukah party.”
Bernstein said the job was a real eye-opener as he got his arms around the Jewish community’s diversity be it in religious observance or political engagement.
“I made friends across the Jewish world,” he said. “It’s not that we always agreed every time. But I found that if you acted like a mensch, you could work through issues of disagreement. I didn’t have a single job that I didn’t enjoy.”
Noam Neusner held the Jewish liaison position in the George W. Bush administration from the spring of 2004 to the summer of 2005.
Neusner, now the principal of 30 Point Strategies, a Washington, D.C., area public relations and marketing strategy firm, said that the Jewish liaison can fill his or her day every day with responsibilities associated with the position.
“Some days it’s Israel and the peace process,” he said. “Some days it’s social security disability insurance. Sometimes it’s homeland security grants given to Jewish institutions. Then, of course, there’s meetings. Lots of meetings.”
Neusner said there were many an evening he’d spend giving tours of the White House West Wing.
“It’s a morning-til-night time job if you want it to be,” he said.
Neusner was in the office when the issue of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal was in place during the summer of 2005. The president, he said, had reached an agreement and understanding of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and the president recognized issues within the population centers of the Palestinian-held West Bank.
“I would sometimes be asked to deal with issues of domestic policy concerns and evaluate what the administration stood for and what the Jewish community was asking for,” he said. “I always made sure to learn what the community wanted, what the stakeholders were pressing for. The Jewish community is not united on any issue, so I had to listen to a lot of different points of view.”
Sometimes, Neusner said he and the different Jewish community groups simply had to agree to disagree.
“I think to be successful at the job, you have to be a good listener,” he said, “and be conscientious and move beyond the main organizations. You want to get into the community and learn what’s going on in the Jewish community in multiple dimensions. Jews read widely and are involved in the community. It shouldn’t be a surprise that we are represented heavily in politics, because we’re engaged and we’re involved. The White House liaison is going to have a busy day every day. I wish him only the best.”
“It is important for the Jewish community to have a liaison within the White House,” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America. “It serves a central focal point for the Obama administration to speak to the Jewish community as well as a person from the Jewish community who can speak to the White House. It is a two-way relationship. We’d rather have one voice than 50 different people in the White House calling 50 different people in the Jewish community.”
The best is exactly what Nosanchuk wants to give to the White House and the Jewish community.
“My overriding goal is to further the president’s priorities,” he said. “The Jewish community has involvement in virtually every major issue that is being considered and being worked on in the White House and administration. What’s amazing and challenging about this job is that it enables me to have exposure and interact with the public on an incredibly wide range of issues.”
When he does have time to himself, he said he usually is cheering on his 16-year-old son at one of his basketball or baseball games, not to mention carpooling him to violin lessons. He also has been involved with Stanford, including co-chairing his Stanford Law School reunion.
“My scarcest commodity is time,” he said. “But this is a convening role I have, to bring people together and to inform them about what is happening at the White House and soliciting their input.”
The goal, he concluded, is to engage and bring people together.
He’s just gotten started.
Nosanchuk, said Daroff, is already well connected to the administration and the Jewish community.
“Matt is a good choice for the job because he is well connected within the Washington scene and Jewish communal scene, and uniquely well positioned to serve the interests of the Jewish community and his boss, the President of the United States.”