A Bad Break-Up Sent Michelle Obama’s Speechwriter Down a Jewish Path

Sarah Hurwitz's new book 'Here All Along' is a masterclass in rediscovering Judaism as an adult.

Bad break-ups are known to be the cause of several time-honored traditions: chopping your hair off and/or getting bangs; dying your hair and/or getting bangs; re-joining Tinder; re-quitting Tinder; eating lots of ice cream; did I mention getting bangs? But for Sarah Hurwitz, a tough break-up in her 30s led her towards a very different kind of tradition: discovering a newfound connection to Judaism, the religion she was brought up in but never truly connected to.

By the time of Hurwitz’s said break-up, she already had a pretty impressive career going as a political speechwriter, including for none other than MICHELLE OBAMA (sorry for the caps, it’s just that damn impressive). She found that taking a deep dive into Judaism as an adult was exactly what she needed to recalibrate her life and find meaning — and awe, and wonder, and gratitude — in the everyday. Through classes, silent meditation retreats, reading books, reading more books, and speaking with people from all corners of the Jewish world, Hurwitz distilled her journey back into Judaism and the many things she learned along the way into her first book, Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, And a Deeper Connection to Life — In Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look there)The book is an excellent starting place for anyone looking to deepen their connection to Judaism at any age, and I was thrilled to chat with Hurwitz about her evolving belief in God, why we can’t rely on Hebrew School for everything, and getting over her imposter syndrome while working for the Obamas (the OBAMAS!).

You credit a tough break-up to ultimately leading you down the path of discovering Judaism in adulthood. Can you talk a bit about why you think it was that moment in your life that spurred this all on?

I grew up thinking that Judaism was two dull services, one lifeless seder, and Hanukkah. And after my bat mitzvah, I was pretty much out, convinced that if I wanted to find meaning and spirituality, I’d have to look elsewhere. Then, in my 30s, after that break-up, I heard about an intro to Judaism class at the D.C. JCC, and I signed up totally on a whim. I wasn’t in an existential crisis or on some epic spiritual journey. I mainly just wanted a break from the endless lonely nights I was spending pacing around my apartment.

But I was totally blown away by what I found in that class: sophisticated theology, beautiful rituals and traditions, profound ethical guidance. I also felt weirdly betrayed — all of this had been here all along, why had I not known about it? Why is the narrative in many parts of the Jewish world still something along the lines of: Israel + Anti-Semitism = Judaism? It was as if all the best parts of Judaism had been hidden from me, and I had only been presented with the most boring, off-putting parts.

That class led to other classes and to thousands of hours spent learning on my own. My book is an account of what I discovered.

I loved the section in the book when you talk about your evolving belief in God. “To be honest, I felt like I was too smart to believe in God — like God is fine for other people, who need that sort of thing to comfort themselves in times of distress, or to incentivize them to behave morally. But not me. I was above that.” Not that I feel the same way, but… I find that incredibly relatable. Why do you think that so many people, Jews in particular, feel that way?

Sadly, too often, the conversation about God in our society is hijacked by the most strident, hateful voices — those claiming that God rejects certain groups of people, or that God wants Donald Trump to be president, or whatever. And even in sane, loving religious spaces, it’s easy to get the impression that God is an all-powerful man in the sky who rewards us when we’re good, punishes us when we’re bad, and really loves it when we spend hours praying to “Him” in a synagogue. If that’s the case, then I am definitely an atheist.

Fortunately, in Judaism, that is not the case. Judaism offers a wildly diverse array of Divine conceptions: God is everything — you’re God, I’m God, we’re all one. God is what arises between two people in deep relationship with one another, fully appreciating each other’s humanity. God is the process by which we become our highest, truest selves. There are Divine feminine conceptions as well, and many others. Discovering all of these options, plus going on 11 silent Jewish meditation retreats — those are actually a thing, and they’re awesome (check out this one, for example, coming up later this year) — opened me up to a whole new idea of what Jewish spirituality could be.

Now that you’ve discovered a deeper connection to Judaism, what does that look like in your everyday life? Do you consider yourself “observant”? Have you taken on new rituals or practices? If so, which are your favorite?

I don’t consider myself “observant” in the traditional sense of that word. But I do consider myself more observant than I used to be. And that confuses many people, because other than not eating pork and shellfish, I don’t keep kosher. Nor do I follow the traditional laws of Shabbat. And I’m only rarely in synagogues. Last I checked, however, there were 613 mitzvot (commandments, the core Jewish laws), and many of them are ethical laws. So I find it interesting that anyone would measure my level of observance by whether I follow Jewish ritual laws without considering whether or not I behave ethically.

But the fact is that now that I’ve studied Jewish laws around speech, I try to be better about not gossiping or shaming people. After studying the Jewish thinking around chesed (lovingkindness), I make more of an effort to visit friends who are ill or who’ve lost a loved one. After studying the laws around helping those in need, I think not just about how much I give, but how I give – do I do so in a way that empowers people and doesn’t embarrass them? And while I mess up and fall short all the time, the point isn’t to be perfect, but to just keep on trying your best day after day. (And BTW, check out this sourcesheet on Sefaria.org that combines my passion for studying Jewish texts with my passion for speechwriting.)

I also really related to your description of your uninspiring Hebrew school experience in the book’s introduction. Looking back, do you think there’s a way to make these early Jewish educational experiences more meaningful for kids, or is it really something you have to come to on your own as an adult, when you have, you know, a fully formed brain?

I actually don’t think Hebrew school is the problem. I think the problem is that many of us stopped learning about Judaism after our bar/bat mitzvahs. Then we grew up, had kids, turned to Hebrew school teachers, and told them, “Please teach our children this vast, deep, 4,000 year tradition, and do it in three hours a week — oh, and Jamie has soccer practice for two of those three hours — thanks!”

Rather than simply outsourcing this work to Hebrew school teachers, I think we need to put some effort into becoming adult Jews ourselves. Many of us just don’t really know much about Judaism. We might know that Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement and Passover marks the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. But what would we say if we were asked the following questions: What does Judaism say about what it means to be a good person? What are some Jewish conceptions of God? What’s the Jewish thinking around what happens after we die?

Other than some vague clichés about tikkun olam/social justice, God being all-powerful and loving, and there being no hell, I’m guessing that many of us would draw a blank. These are three of the most important questions that any human being can ask about life, and Judaism has several millennia’s worth of wisdom help us answer them. But many of us stopped learning at age 13, which is the exact moment when we were old enough to really start learning.

What do your parents think of your newfound connection to the religion?

I think they were surprised at first, and maybe a little confused. But once they realized that I wasn’t planning to move to Israel and have 13 children, but instead was reading a lot of books, meeting with rabbis, attending a bunch of silent Jewish meditation retreats, and having nice Shabbat dinners with friends, they were all for it.

You include an appendix of resources for getting started in the book, and mention how when you first started looking into Judaism, you were overwhelmed. If you had to choose just one thing — a book, a website, a class, something else — that you would recommend to somebody in a similar boat to where you were at the beginning of your journey, what would it be?

This is the exact question that led me to write my book! Learning about Judaism as an adult was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I found that books about Judaism generally fall into two categories: 1) introductory, how-to books that are helpful with the nuts and bolts, but not really with the why-to, and 2) books about a specific area of Jewish law, which aren’t so helpful to a beginner. I struggled to find a book that both explains the basics and unearths some of Judaism’s deepest insights. So I decided to try to write that book, the book I wish I’d had when I first started learning about Judaism as an adult.

How intimidating was it, the first time you ever met with Barack or Michelle Obama? Have you ever felt a sense of “imposter syndrome” in your career, and if so, how did you get over it? (Definitely asking for a friend…)

speechwriter sarah hurwitz and michelle obama
Photo by Chuck Kennedy

It was so intimidating! When I joined the Obama campaign in 2008, I spent the plane ride from D.C. to Chicago re-reading Dreams From My Father and thinking to myself, “Oh *&*$, this is so so good, there is no way I am good enough to write for this man.” Fortunately, the Obamas are both lovely people who are great at putting others at ease.

But let me tell you, I am very familiar with imposter syndrome. In fact, when I was first asked to apply for the job as Hillary Clinton’s chief speechwriter in 2008, I said no… twice! I just didn’t think I was qualified. Note that at that point, I had already been deputy chief speechwriter on two presidential campaigns. But nope, not qualified. How gendered is that?! It wasn’t until the third time they asked me to apply, when they told me that they might hire co-chief speechwriters, that I said yes. Then, after I went through the whole interview process, they told me that I had gotten the job, but that it would just be me, no co-chief speechwriter. By that point it was too late to back out, so I did it. But it shouldn’t have taken three tries!

I’m still not over my imposter syndrome, but it’s gotten better with time as I’ve seen that I can succeed at those jobs I was so afraid of.

What was the most surprising thing about working with Michelle Obama?

When I first met her, I couldn’t get over how real she is. She is constitutionally incapable of being anything other than exactly what she is. And over the years, even when subjected to the most brutal scrutiny, she kept up that relentless authenticity — putting her truest self out there, day after day. I will never stop being in awe of her, and I will never stop feeling grateful that I got to work for her.

What do you think has been the greatest benefit of connecting more deeply to Judaism in your adulthood? 

I feel like I’ve finally found a space where I can wrestle with my biggest life questions, and I’ve found so many thoughtful, soulful, loving people to accompany and guide me in this wrestling. I feel like my life has another dimension now, with much more daily awe, wonder, and gratitude.

What’s next for you? 

This is an excellent question — I honestly have no idea. I’ve never been a big believer in having a five- or 10-year plan. In politics, where so much depends on whether your candidate wins or loses, you’re lucky if you have a five- or 10-week plan. I’d love to write another book, but for now, I’m mainly just focused on getting out the word about this one. And it’s always possible that I could wind up working in politics again. We’ll see!

Hear more from Sarah Hurtwitz on the podcast Call Your Mother from our partner site, Kveller.

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