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Obama’s Jewish liaison says goodbye

Matt Nosanchuk, seated, at left end of table, attending a megilla reading in the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room, March 24.       
Matt Nosanchuk, seated, at left end of table, attending a megilla reading in the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room, March 24.       

You get to listen to Jews yelling at you. You get to listen to mandarins tell you why they won’t listen to Jews. You get to emcee a cappella competitions.

Who wouldn’t want to be White House Jewish liaison?

Matt Nosanchuk lasted nearly three years in a post — officially titled associate director of public engagement — that may be the apotheosis of thanklessness. He recently stepped down from the position.

Notably, Nosanchuk wound it up with plenty of thanks from some of those who made clear their antipathy to the administration he represented.

One e-mail said: “Matt. Best of luck. You were always gracious and a wonderful listener. Obama is fortunate to have you.”

That was from Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America and one of the Obama administration’s most lacerating critics.

“Matt always took my calls, returned my calls, he listened to my concerns and responded respectfully, obviously supporting Obama, that’s his job,” Klein said. “Obama was lucky to have him.”

Nosanchuk’s key to lasting longer than his predecessors?

It was his preternatural ability to listen without judgment, according to Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who directs American Friends of Lubavitch, Chabad’s office in Washington, DC.

“Matt’s biggest strength might just be his ability to listen to opinions beyond his own or that of the administration and appreciate their merits,” Shemtov said. “That’s probably why he was so widely respected during his tenure.”

It’s a skill that guided Nosanchuk, 50, who lives in suburban Maryland, through some of the most fraught years of a fraught relationship among the Obama administration, the Israeli government, and some organized Jewish groups. He took flak both from the Jewish community and, occasionally, the administration officials to whom he would relay Jewish community concerns.

Nosanchuk led outreach to the Jewish community during the talks over the Iran nuclear deal, which the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee adamantly opposed, as well as the 2013-14 U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which collapsed in recriminations among all sides.

Throughout, he maintained friendly relationships with the antagonists in those battles, testified by rare on-the-record praise from AIPAC and Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington.

“The embassy enjoyed working with Matt, who also attended many of our events, and I wish him much success in the future,” Dermer wrote in an e-mail.

“We are grateful to Matt for his strong efforts to build the relationship between the administration and the pro-Israel community,” said Marshall Wittmann, AIPAC’s spokesperson.

Nosanchuk would make a beeline for his adversaries in hopes of winning them over. At a recent conference of the Israeli-American Council, he sat at the same table as Sheldon Adelson — the council’s funder along with being a Republican kingmaker — and made pleasant small talk. Adelson, a casino magnate, had gone to great lengths in 2012 to stop President Barack Obama’s reelection.

Nosanchuk, a member of the Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in suburban Washington and a gay man, came to the job experienced in negotiating change in less than amenable environments. As a Justice Department official, he advocated for LGBT rights in the first Obama term, which evolved from agnosticism on same-sex marriage to full-throated support of marriage equality.

“When you are at the White House, it is very easy to shut the door and say we will not meet with people who do not agree with us,” said William Daroff, the Washington director of the Jewish Federations of North America. “The White House under Matt never shut the door. He made sure the Iran deal was in a silo, so those who disagreed on Iran could work with the administration on 99 other issues. His personality and relationships were such that that open door was always there.”

Nosanchuk’s modus operandi was to frame contentious issues in familiar, even homey settings. At the height of the Iran debate a year ago, Nosanchuk organized Obama’s speech at Adas Israel, a Washington synagogue. He also set up the president’s on-line address to the Jewish community during the Iran debate through the JFNA. In 2013, for the first time, a sukka was in place for the vice president’s annual Jewish community reception.

A signal of the post-Iran deal reconciliation between Obama and Netanyahu — and Dermer, Netanyahu’s right-hand man — was the president’s Holocaust memorial address in January at the Israeli Embassy, also brokered by Nosanchuk.

Nosanchuk’s final week was a busy one. In addition to organizing a Purim megilla reading for administration officials at the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room, he shepherded Vice President Joe Biden’s well-received March 20 valedictory speech to AIPAC’s annual policy conference.

Nosanchuk was adept, too, at that most dreaded of White House traditions among Jewish liaisons: organizing the annual Hanukka party. Drawing up the invitation list — and fielding the anguished calls from the uninvited — was a protocol challenge of the first order. 

Nosanchuk will be staying on in the government in a position that has yet to be announced. His successor has not been named publicly.

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