After two years of delay due to COVID-19, former Obama Administration speech writer Sarah Hurwitz came to Cornell on Monday, March 27 to talk about her journey grappling with Judaism and politics.
Sarah Austin ’23, president of the Cornell Hillel executive board, introduced Hurwitz. The event was moderated by Sara Stober ’22, a member of the Cornell Political Union, and co-sponsored by Cornell Hillel, Cornell Democrats and the Cornell Political Union.
Having been a speech writer on three losing campaigns — Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential primary campaign, John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and General Wesley Clark’s 2004 Democratic primary campaign — Hurwitz encountered numerous challenges along the path to becoming Michelle Obama’s speech writer.
“Speech writing is kind of a weird job,” Hurwitz said. “Right? You want to be a lawyer, you go to law school. You want to be a doctor, you go to med school. How do you get to be a speech writer? The answer for me was actually a lot of failure.”
After working on Clinton’s campaign, Hurwitz was hired by President Barack Obama’s campaign and then worked for him in the White House. At this point, Hurwitz made an unusual career choice — she switched from working for President Barack Obama to working for First Lady Michelle Obama.
“I made kind of an unusual White House career move: I went from the West Wing –– writing for the President –– to the East Wing –– writing for the first lady,” Hurwitz said. “I knew that I was a better fit for her voice. I just had a better feel for her. I was more interested in the subject she was talking about.”
In addition to speaking about her career path, Hurwitz answered questions about her religious journey. The two have now converged — her book about reconnecting with Judaism later in life, Here All Along, was published in 2019.
When Hurwitz was 36, she decided to take an introduction to Judaism class at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center, hoping to engage more with Jewish culture.
At the time, Hurwitz considered herself as culturally Jewish but not very engaged with traditional practice. The class helped encourage her to explore Judaism further — she studied Jewish texts while trying different traditions to see what fit with her life.
Hurwitz’s White House colleagues were supportive of Hurwitz’s journey, accommodating her observance of Shabbat for many months as she decided to try being offline from Friday to Saturday evening. Hurwitz eventually decided that, while she celebrates Jewish holidays and is involved with her synagogue, studying Judaism was a better fit for her than intensive traditional practice.
Hurwitz worries about a lack of detailed knowledge about Judaism among some American Jews, and is in support of more Jewish education aimed at people in their twenties and thirties.
Hurwitz’s religious values, such as the idea that all people’s lives are valuable, also inform her liberal political views. Hurwitz said she sees the Torah as a fundamentally political text, full of laws and guidance about treating poor people and refugees with care. However, she said she doesn’t think that Judaism dictates any one policy position and thinks that nuance is necessary.
“I think you can make arguments on all sides of the political spectrum using Jewish texts,” Hurwitz said. “I don’t think there is any one authentic Jewish position on immigration, poverty or healthcare. Conservatives can use the Torah and Jewish law, liberals can use Torah and Jewish law.”
For students who wish to pursue a career in speechwriting, Hurwitz recommended getting comfortable with risk. For students looking to communicate their ideas in and beyond their college education, Hurwitz’s advice is to speak in one’s own voice –– show, don’t tell and to be truthful above all.
“So often when people are preparing something they want to speak about, they want to know, ‘what can make me sound smart, or powerful, or funny? What does my audience want to hear?’” Hurwitz said. “These are all fine questions, but they should be your second or third question. Your first question should really be, ‘what is the deepest, most important, most helpful truth that I can tell?’”