NEW YORK — The White House’s director of Jewish outreach has left the position, it was announced Friday.
Jarrod Bernstein, who has held the post at the White House’s Office of Public Engagement for just over 15 months, “will be returning home to New York to take on new challenges,” according to an email sent by Bernstein Friday afternoon. Friday was his last day on the job.
“I believe together we have increased understanding in the community and together we furthered the work of repairing the world and making this a more perfect union,” he wrote.
Bernstein’s portfolio will be handled “in the interim” by Zachary Kelly, a staffer in the White House Chief of Staff’s office who grew up in the Jewish community of Chicago, Obama’s hometown.
The Jewish liaison job is a famously difficult one. It has been described more than once as “a very stressful position.”
“The position sometimes seems like it should merit combat pay,” the Jewish Week’s James Besser noted in 2009, two White House liaisons ago.
“The White House liaison is the poor guy or gal who has to interface with Jewish organization leaders, every one of whom believes he or she should have instant access to the White House, and deal with a community that is deeply divided on a host of big issues, from Mideast peace to school vouchers and aid to parochial schools.”
Bernstein, who holds degrees in law and political science, began his career in public service in New York. According to his White House profile, he served as chief spokesman in the New York City Office of Emergency Management from 2002 to 2007, where he “managed the citywide public information efforts around dozens of large scale emergencies. He was also responsible for writing New York’s Emergency Public Information Plan, still in use today.”
He then served as deputy commissioner of community affairs in New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office, where he was responsible “for community crisis management and outreach around mayoral programs.”
His expertise in crisis communications continued at the Department of Homeland Security, where Bernstein held the post of principal deputy assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs. In that role, he worked “extensively on the response to the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, the earthquake in Haiti, as well as the dissemination of intelligence information to state and local governments during periods of increased threat,” according to the White House.
For those who have followed the White House’s relationship with the Jewish community, it is not surprising that the liaison to the Jewish community should be well-versed in crisis communications.
While Obama and the Democratic Party enjoyed widespread support in the American Jewish community, with large majorities of Jews saying in polls they supported the president’s domestic agenda, some of Obama’s greatest critics have also hailed from the Jewish community. Some Jewish groups campaigned hard against Obama’s reelection in 2012, criticizing his policies on Israel and Iran and calling for Jewish votes to shift away from their traditionally Democratic leanings.
The director of Jewish outreach was often involved in behind-the-scenes communications meant to dispel some of the concerns raised about the president in the Jewish community.
Bernstein also worked in a White House that saw many Jews in top roles, including chiefs of staff Rahm Emanuel and Jack Lew and celebrated political advisor David Axelrod. The keen awareness at such senior levels of the White House hierarchy of the political debates taking place within the Jewish community are thought to have kept the issue of Jewish outreach on the agenda throughout the past two years.
The job’s well-known challenges did not begin with the 2012 election. The post of liaison to the Jewish community is famous for its high turnover over the years. Bernstein took over the position in October 2011, serving for just under 16 months. His predecessor, Danielle Borrin, while remaining at the White House as associate director of the Office of Public Engagement and a special assistant to Vice President Joe Biden, served as Jewish liaison for just two years.
Previously, the Bush White House famously saw seven Jewish community liaisons in just eight years.
Bernstein announced the departure on Friday afternoon, shortly before the Jewish Sabbath, making it difficult to obtain reactions from Jewish leaders before the start of the Sabbath at sundown.
Bernstein and Kelly could not be reached for comment by press time.