In contrast to the cabinet of outgoing President Donald Trump, which included many political supporters who previously served in Congress and prominent private enterprises, President-Elect Joe Biden has a more traditional cabinet that includes veterans of federal agencies with career and educational backgrounds relating to their nominated positions. The incoming cabinet also includes nominees with affiliations and backgrounds that connect to the Jewish community. The personal connection that comes from Biden’s Jewish grandchildren and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ husband is matched by the professional experiences of these individuals. While Trump leaned towards Orthodox and politically conservative Jews for support, Biden’s Jewish circle represents a wider denominational spectrum.
The Secretary of State nominee speaks of his great-grandfather Meir Blinken, a Yiddish writer, and his stepfather Samuel Pisar, as they concern immigration and his Jewish heritage. At a campaign event last October, he spoke on what inspired Pisar to immigrate, and the moment when he encountered his liberator, an African-American GI.
“He got down on his knees and he said the only three words that he knew in English, that his mother had taught him before the war: ‘G-d bless America.’ And at that point, the GI lifted him into the tank, into freedom, into America. That’s the story that I grew up with – about what our country is and what it represents, and what it means when the United States is engaged and leading.”
Blinken’s relationship with Biden goes back to his time in the Senate, when he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Like his predecessor, John Kerry, he speaks fluent French and seeks a multilateral approach that contrasts with Trump’s policy of America First.
When Blinken was nominated by Biden for Secretary of State, his centrist approach towards Israel earned him an angry tweet by Rep. Rashida Tlaib. “So long as he doesn’t suppress my First Amendment right to speak out against Netanyahu’s racist and inhumane policies. The Palestinian people deserve equality and justice.”
Blinken opposes conditioning aid to Israel on political policy, supports keeping the embassy in Jerusalem, and vetoing anti-Israel resolutions in the UN.
His wedding was conducted in a church in an interfaith ceremony.
The Brooklyn-born daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants, the Treasury Secretary nominee previously served as Bill Clinton’s economic advisor and was appointed by Barack Obama as Chair of the Federal Reserve Bank. Yellen received her doctorate in economics at Yale University, where she was the only woman in her PhD class. Prior to her appointment to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in 1944, she taught economics at Harvard and then Berkeley.
Biden’s pick for Attorney General is remembered by most Americans as President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court in 2016, who was denied a hearing by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The snub was among the most divisive events of the Obama administration. At the time, he was the Chief Judge of the DC Circuit Court with a reputation for centrism, and he did not speak to the press about this rare denial of a court nominee – not by a negative vote, or declination to serve, but a refusal to bring the vote to the floor. Through the ordeal, Garland did not give interviews, continuing to serve as a judge on one of the nation’s most influential courts.
Although he did not become as much of a popular culture figure as the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when his term as chief judge ended last February, his colleagues celebrated Garland by transforming the “Mensch on a Bench” action figure with his face and robe. Garland was raised in the suburbs of Chicago, and spoke of his family’s history at his nomination announcement.
“My family deserves much of the credit for the path that led me here. My grandparents left the Pale of Settlement at the border of Western Russia and Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, fleeing anti-Semitism and hoping to make a better life for their children in America.” Garland lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where he attends Temple Sinai with his family.
Supporters of Garland see his nomination as poetic justice, as McConnell loses his leadership position in the Senate while Garland is elevated to the cabinet.
A more recent and diverse story of Jewish immigration is personified by Biden’s pick for Homeland Security Secretary. Mayorkas was born in Cuba the year that Fidel Castro’s communist guerillas seized power on this island nation. The confiscation of private property and religious persecution resulted in an exodus, with most Cuban Jews fleeing to the United States.
“When I was very young, the United States provided my family and me a place of refuge,” Mayorkas tweeted following the announcement of his nomination. “Now, I have been nominated to be the DHS Secretary and I oversee the protection of all Americans and those who flee persecution in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones.”
His parents were also refugees from earlier upheavals. His father was born in Cuba in a Sephardic family, and his mother fled Romania shortly before the Holocaust. He takes pride in his experience as the first immigrant to lead Homeland Security, and in his blended culture as a Latino and Jew.
The incoming Chief of Staff serves as the confidante to the president, a gatekeeper, and a liaison to cabinet members and their respective agencies. Klain has been at Biden’s side for more than a decade, having served as his chief of staff when Biden was vice president, and further back in time he had the same role serving under Vice President Al Gore. His experience in coordinating the federal response to the Ebola virus was cited by Biden in his selection of Klain in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Klain was born in Indianapolis, and attended Beth El-Tzedek, a Conservative temple. Shortly before his bar mitzvah, his mother became ill and it was rescheduled. He rose to the challenge, and leined a different parshah with less time to prepare. “I grew up in Indiana, with a decent-size Jewish community, but we were a distinct minority,” he told The New York Times in 2007. “Not having a Christmas tree was very much part of our Jewish identity in a place where everyone else did.”
Although his childhood home avoided the evergreen tree, his wife is not Jewish and there are two winter holidays observed in his home.
The nominee for Director of National Intelligence was raised by intermarried parents in Manhattan. She would be the first woman in this position. She became familiar with Biden as a staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Biden chaired as a Senator.
The most visible Orthodox Jew in the Biden administration is not cabinet-level but highly influential as the deputy national security adviser for cybersecurity in the National Security Council. Anne Neuberger was born in Borough Park and speaks fluent Yiddish. She attended the Bais Yaakov of Boro Park and Touro College, followed by the Columbia Business School. Chani, as she is known to her childhood neighbors, has a more recent story of Jewish survival that she shares in interviews. Her father, George Karfunkel, was a refugee from communist Hungary and, along with her mother, were among the hostages on the Air France flight that was rescued in Entebbe in 1976.
After the 9/11 attacks on the country, Neuberger was inspired to a public service career, specializing in cybersecurity for the Pentagon. In a 2015 interview with NPR, she spoke of how faith bolsters her work. “The discipline and rigor, the restrictions on what one can eat, the restrictions on how one behaves, I hope I bring that in values, living true to one’s values, trying to bring that integrity into the way you approach your job each day and how you interact with people, every single day.”
There are many other Jews who will be joining Biden, serving this country and as liaisons between him and the Jewish community. Perhaps their appointments are not as newsworthy as Rep. Debbie Haaland as the first Native American Interior Secretary, Gen. Lloyd Austin as the first black Defense Secretary, and Neera Tanden (daughter of Indian immigrants) as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, but our older readers remember when cabinets did not reflect the American population, and having one Jewish voice was a reason to be proud.
When there already have been six Jews serving previously as Secretary of the Treasury, is Yellen’s appointment really to be considered historic or unprecedented? When there is still anti-Semitism being expressed in public and online, their appointments serve to demonstrate our acceptance in this country, protected by law and bolstered by all presidents since George Washington – something for which we are thankful.
The author is an adjunct professor of American Jewish History at Touro College-NYSCAS.
By Sergey Kadinsky