Sarah Hurwitz worked in the Obama administration, first as a speechwriter for President Barack Obama and then as head speechwriter for first lady Michelle Obama. After her time in the administration and a bad breakup, she set out on a five-year discovery of Judaism after years of disengagement. She wrote a compelling book: “Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There).” Our conversation below was edited lightly for length and style.
Question: Between the time you became disengaged from Judaism as a teenager and finding Judaism as an adult, did you feel you were missing something?
Answer: I did, but I don’t think I could have put my finger on what exactly it was. I was proud to be Jewish. But if asked why I felt that way, I probably would have said something vague about the Jewish commitment to social justice and questioning and debating, and how it’s amazing that we’ve survived for so long under such persecution.
Back then, my only points of contact with Judaism were two largely incomprehensible synagogue services at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and a yearly Seder. And nothing I saw during those moments suggested that Judaism might offer wisdom on how to be a good person, live a meaningful life, and find spiritual connection (spoiler alert: I was wrong, Judaism offers all of that and much more).
Q: What do you now “get” from Judaism? And did you get something you didn’t know you needed?
A: So many things. In fact, I’m hoping that my book will serve as one long answer to this question. But to cite just one example, Judaism has given me an adult approach to spirituality. Growing up, based on my child’s understanding of the Jewish prayer book, I had the impression that God is a man in the sky who rewards and punishes people as they deserve. I didn’t buy that, so I assumed that I was an atheist or agnostic.
But through studying Jewish theology and experiencing Jewish spirituality as an adult, I’ve discovered a range of diverse and sophisticated Jewish conceptions of the Divine. And I’ve found myself feeling connected to something that is indescribably big, and also intimate, and somehow associated with boundless love — something that calls me to live a life of purpose and service, that enhances my daily sense of awe and wonder, and that gives me a deeper sense of presence in my own life.
Q: So many Jews without a good foundation are overwhelmed and, therefore, avoid synagogue. How would you suggest they take the first step?
A: I know how they feel! When I first started learning about Judaism as an adult, I assumed that other Jews knew all the Jewish things and, if they discovered how little I knew, they’d think I was a bad Jew and judge me accordingly. And I felt like a total impostor in Jewish spaces like synagogues and Shabbat dinners. I didn’t understand what was happening, and I was constantly worried that I was going to make some terrible faux pas. I still occasionally feel this way.
But I quickly realized that Judaism isn’t a set of simple dogmas; it’s based on millions of pages of commentary and debate over thousands of years, and no one can come close to knowing everything. And there’s no right or wrong way to get started. Personally, I found it helpful to take a couple of introduction to Judaism classes, which are often offered at synagogues and Jewish community centers. These classes gave me a foundation from which I could start learning more deeply. I also realized that it was best to just be open about what I didn’t know. No one ever judged me when I simply said, “I don’t have much Jewish background, could you explain that to me?” Instead, they were delighted that I was asking.
Q: Did your views on Israel change through this process, and do you now have a different relationship with Israel?
A: My views haven’t really changed, but I’ve definitely become increasingly frustrated with the conversation around Israel. It’s painful to see this vibrant, diverse, complicated country — a country filled with real people living real lives — reduced to a bunch of simplistic, highly-charged talking points. It’s also painful to see mind-bogglingly complex issues — involving politics, religion, economics, demographics, and centuries of history — being discussed in venues like Twitter, which aren’t exactly ideal for thoughtful discourse.
And, too often, the discussion about Israel subsumes everything else. Judaism is a vast, deep, 4,000-year-old tradition, and Israel is a key part of that tradition. But I think it’s important to make room in the conversation for the rest of Judaism as well — our profound ethical and spiritual wisdom, our beautiful holidays and life cycle rituals, our remarkable history, and the many insights Judaism offers into what it means to be human.
Q: Judaism isn’t simply for synagogues. It tells us about everything from feeding your pets to running a business to child-parent relations. Do you now go through life thinking about the Jewish view on XYZ? Do you reach different answers than you would have before you began your Jewish journey?
A: I do. And you really put your finger on how Jewish law works — it’s incredibly detailed and specific. Take the Jewish thinking around gossip, for example. We’re not just told “don’t gossip” and left to figure out for ourselves what that means. Rather, Jewish law gets into the details: What exactly counts as gossip? Why is it harmful? How do we avoid it? And Jewish thinkers have come up with all kinds of images and stories to answer these questions. One 15th-century Jewish text points out that those who gossip always focus on people’s flaws, and it compares gossips to flies, noting: “If a man has boils, the flies will let the rest of the body go and sit on the boil. And thus it is with a gossip.” A medieval commentary notes that if you confront someone face to face with a sword, that person can plead for mercy, and you can change your mind about harming them. But a gossip is like someone shooting off arrows from afar: Once the arrow has left the bow, you can’t get it back. And your target never has a chance to defend itself.
I’m still nowhere near careful enough about how I use my speech. But I often find myself pausing before I say something and thinking about these images and others. And that’s true for many other aspects of my life, as well.