Sarah Hurwitz’s “Here All Along” is what she calls, “a love letter to Judaism.”
Featured photo by Violet Markelou
Sarah Hurwitz, a former speechwriter for the Obamas, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, has been giving speeches in Michigan that have nothing to do with politics.
Hurwitz has spoken at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University about Judaism for the release of her new book, Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life-In Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There).
Hurwitz had a break in a personal relationship that motivated her to fill her free time with a meaningful pursuit, and that became the exploration of Judaism. What she learned moved her from the spoken word (campaign speeches) to the written word (a book about religion) and back to the spoken word (presentations about concepts covered in her book).
“I found everyone [involved in my research] had something interesting to offer, and I learned a lot from people of diverse Jewish backgrounds,” Hurwitz says of the ideas she gathered from attending classes, listening to lectures, reading original religious texts and commentary and having one-to-one conversations.
“The topics I was most personally interested in were Jewish spirituality and ethics,” she says. “I think the ethics of modern society don’t set a very high bar, whereas Judaism sets a high ethical bar in how we use our speech, how we treat other people and how we behave as members of a community.”
Hurwitz, 42 and living in Washington, D.C., had been a lapsed Jew after her disappointment with religious classes she attended as a youngster. But her outlook changed as her world of religious experiences expanded.
She attended a variety of Passover seders, some with personalized Haggadahs, one where costumed guests reenacted the Exodus story and another with a banana on the seder plate, prompting reflection of the refugee crisis.
A reading at that seder about two young Syrian brothers and their mother who drowned on a Turkish beach on their own exodus to freedom moved guests to tears, she writes. The banana was a tribute to their father, who survived the journey and had brought his sons a banana to share every day in Syria.
Through these experiences, Hurwitz became aware of individual attempts to apply ancient values to modern issues.
Her book, published by Spiegel & Grau, goes into different ideas about God, holidays and life-cycle rituals, among many other topics that include tracing the history of anti-Semitism and its impact today.
She intends her book for those beginning in Judaism as well as the more observant.
“I think it’s a little troubling that we measure someone’s observance on just the rituals they perform,” she says. Her own practices favor the ethical over the ritual, including her interest in attending some Shabbat services while not being shomer Shabbat (Shabbat observant) and avoiding pork and shellfish while not keeping strict kosher.
“No one has ever asked me, when they’re trying to decide if I’m observant, if I conduct my business affairs honestly, am careful with the words I speak, tell the truth or give tzedakah,” she says.
Hurwitz, a Harvard College and Harvard Law School graduate, tried speechwriting as a summer intern in Al Gore’s office. She was inspired by stories from her father, a speechwriter in a Congressional campaign years ago.
Her initial experience solidified her ideas about using speeches to inspire, persuade and bring people together for a common cause. She then worked for Maryland’s lieutenant governor and a U.S. Sen. John Kerry before joining the White House staff.
“I keep in touch with the Obamas and see them every so often,” she says. “They taught me so much about how to write speeches. They’re the kind of speakers who always know what they want to say.
“Mrs. Obama sent a beautiful tweet when my book came out in September. It was so incredibly kind and loving.”
Although not doing any political speechwriting during this year’s primary campaigns, she is thinking about trying for campaign work during the general elections. Right now, she is concentrating on presentations for Jewish organizations expressing interest in her book, which she reads in the audio version.
“My book is a love letter to Judaism, so it’s not very newsy,” says Hurwitz, who practices and teaches religious meditation. “So often Judaism makes the news when something terrible happens, like the terrible anti-Semitic incidents.
“All of our [religious] wisdom, our beautiful rituals and traditions, our profound ethical and spiritual teachings don’t make the news because they’re not newsy, and that’s a little sad for me.
“The more I learned, the more I benefited. The learning shapes how I walk in the world, and I feel grateful for that experience.”