New chief of staff has strong Jewish identity

washington | When Josh Bolten walked into his first meeting as a member of President Bush’s Cabinet in the summer of 2003, he was asked to lead the president and the Cabinet in prayer. He chose to pray for the welfare of the American government, both in Hebrew and English, a sign of his strong Jewish identity.

Bolten was named Tuesday, March 28 as Bush’s second chief of staff. He succeeds Andrew Card, who served more than five years in the post. The move comes amid low approval ratings for the administration and calls from both parties for new leadership at the White House.

Bolten, 51, has been one of the senior Jewish officials in the White House through much of Bush’s administration. Before this week’s appointment, he served as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, a Cabinet-rank position, and as a domestic policy adviser.

Colleagues and friends say Bolten has been vocal about his religion and willing to participate in Jewish events at the White House. He frequently has been seen at White House Chanukah candle lightings, and participated in a Megillah reading at the White House during Purim this year.

He has also been a quiet advocate for Jewish concerns, say Jewish organizational officials, sometimes bringing issues past the White House bureaucracy and straight to influential leaders, like Karl Rove, the president’s deputy chief of staff and political adviser.

“Since the beginning of this administration, he has been a senior-level force for making sure the Jewish community had a voice at the very highest levels of the administration,” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy at United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of the North American federation system.

“Josh Bolten as chief of staff to the president will open up great opportunities for the Jewish community to make sure we are heard,” Daroff added.

However, several Jewish groups have complained in the past about the lack of White House access for liberal organizations that do not share the Bush administration’s mindset on issues such as the Iraq war and faith-based initiatives.

Bolten becomes the second Jew to serve as White House chief of staff.

Ken Duberstein served in that post under President Reagan. Republican Jewish leaders noted repeatedly Tuesday that no Democratic president has had a Jewish chief of staff. The Clinton administration did, however, have several Jewish Cabinet members.

As chief of staff, Bolten remains a member of the president’s Cabinet. Bolten was the first Jew appointed to Bush’s Cabinet, but was later joined by Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Washington office director of American Friends of Lubavitch, called Bolten a “quintessential American Jewish public servant.”

“He’s a Jew who’s constantly seeking to learn and understand more about the Jewish traditions,” Shemtov said. “He’s someone who identifies proudly with the Jewish people and is always there for the community.”

Noam Neusner, a former White House Jewish liaison, served as Bolten’s communications director at the OMB and described his former boss as “brilliant.”

“He’s extremely genial and extremely hard-working,” Neusner said. “He’s a great guy to know.”

Bolten first began working for George W. Bush when he was campaigning for president in 1999. Laura Bush and others made sure barbecues for campaign staffers had vegetables on the grill for Bolten, while the rest ate barbecued pork, colleagues said.

Once at the White House, he would bring dreidels and chocolate gelt to senior staff meetings at Chanukah, and has a mezuzah on his White House door.

Bolten grew up in Washington. He received his bachelor’s degree from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1976 and a law degree from Stanford University in 1980.

He served the senior Bush administration as general counsel to the U.S. Trade Representative and in the White House as deputy assistant to the president for legislative affairs. He also served on Capitol Hill as trade counsel to the Senate Finance Committee.

Between the senior Bush and the current Bush administrations, Bolten was executive director of legal and government affairs at Goldman Sachs International in London.