NEW YORK – American Jewish leaders offered high praise for Jarrod Bernstein, who left the White House on Friday after serving 16 months as the liaison to the Jewish community.
“He did an outstanding job,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella organization that often facilitates contact between Jewish groups and governmental bodies.
“Jarrod was always responsive and sensitive to the need to increase communication on an ongoing basis,” Hoenlein said, adding that he hoped the White House will find a replacement “of equal commitment and competence to continue the two-way communication.”
Bernstein’s interim replacement, Zach Kelly, a special assistant in the Chief of Staff’s office who grew up in the Chicago Jewish community, is thought to be a contender for the position, but a search for a permanent replacement has not yet begun. The opening has already drawn one high-profile endorsement, with the influential Tablet Magazine endorsing Joshua Malina, a Jewish actor who played the fictional White House deputy communications director Will Bailey on the NBC drama “The West Wing.”
“Jarrod Bernstein was an exceptional White House Jewish liaison,” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the umbrella body of the American Jewish communal federations. “Jarrod Bernstein is an incredibly hard-working, intelligent, and articulate professional,” he said.
Bernstein had previously served in communications and emergency management roles in New York City’s municipal government and at the Department of Homeland Security.
That experience, combined with his “being a lifelong Jewish New Yorker,” brought “great benefit [to] the American Jewish community,” Daroff said.
Daroff also praised the possible appointment of Kelly to the job. “I am a fan of Zach Kelly. He has had a great deal of engagement with the Jewish community in his hometown of Chicago, where he is a product of Jewish schools, and at Washington University. Being positioned in the Chief of Staff’s office and with Senior Advisor Pete Rouse gives Zach access to the top decision-makers in the White House.”
David Harris, head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said Bernstein’s “exuberance and commitment to the president’s agenda were obvious for anyone to see.”
The Jewish leaders offered special praise for Bernstein’s level of access within the White House.
Staffers in the White House’s Office of Public Engagement “don’t always have access to the key people [in the White House]; Jarrod did,” according to Hoenlein.
Harris agreed. “His tremendous access within the White House and his clear ability to connect with top White House decision-makers made sure they were hearing the Jewish community,” he said.
The job is thought to be a trying one. During the Bush administration, seven people held the post in just eight years. Bernstein was the second liaison under Obama.
One Jewish leader’s praise reflected the complexity of the job. According to Josh Block, president of The Israel Project and a former AIPAC spokesman, “Jarrod deserves a lot credit for balancing his work to advance the administration’s policies and the wide set of interests, and people, for whom he was the president’s most present face. It can be a challenging job, and Jarrod did it with aplomb.”
The job’s high turnover is a sign of how stressful it can be, said Harris.
“Anybody who deals regularly with the Jewish people knows they can be difficult to deal with,” he noted, joining a refrain about Jewish leadership that harkens back to the Biblical recounting of Moses’s tenure at the top. “It’s always a stressful position, no matter who holds the White House. Whoever has occupied that position has thrown a lot of themselves into it, and it’s naturally an exhausting job.”
For Daroff, the Obama period was actually one of stability. “The Obama Administration had two [liaisons] during the first term, which allowed for excellent continuity,” he noted.
In a letter sent on Friday, Bernstein wrote he would be returning to New York, but did not specify his future plans.