WASHINGTON (JTA) — As a strong backer of President Bush’s faith-based initiative, the Orthodox Union’s Nathan Diament was no stranger at the White House during the past eight years. At several meetings he was one of the few Jewish participants — sometimes the only one — in the room.
Yet even with the change of presidents, Diament, 41, does not appear to have lost his access to the White House.
Just three hours before Barack Obama’s inauguration, Diament was among the small group of Washington-based Jews in attendance at a private prayer service for the incoming president — and was able to recite to Obama an English version of the blessing for seeing a head of state.
Those surprised by the notion of the O.U.’s man in D.C. being embraced by both the outgoing and incoming presidential administrations don’t understand how Diament — or, for that matter, Washington — works.
Diament, who already has forged relations with some of Obama’s top domestic policy staffers from their days working in the Senate on religious liberty issues, insists that he’s no different from any other political advocacy professional. The key is knowing how to build coalitions and look for “opportunities to promote and pursue the interests of your constituency,” which in Diament’s case includes nearly 1,000 Orthodox synagogues.
And, of course, it doesn’t hurt having spent hours on the basketball court during law school with the new president.
“I was not smart enough to be on Law Review” with Obama, said Diament, recalling their years together as students at Harvard Law School. “But I was smart enough to always try to be on his pickup team.”
With only one court in the gym, losers had to sit, so being on Obama’s team “maximized my chances” to play longer, Diament said. That’s not to say that the president was a Duke-caliber player, but “in the context of Harvard Law School he was excellent.”
Diament joked that he knew Obama had a very positive attitude toward Jews because, despite his superior basketball skills, “he was wiling to feed the short but fast Jewish kid the ball as I was fast-breaking down the court” for layups. Diament insisted that his own basketball game was at its pinnacle in those days, adding that he mostly runs and swims these days — and doesn’t expect an invite to shoot hoops at the White House.
If Obama wants a game now, Diament explained, he can invite the Knicks over — the president “doesn’t need schleppers like me on the court with him.”
Diament wasn’t in touch with Obama after law school, but they became reacquainted when Obama began running for the U.S. Senate in 2004. Once Obama arrived in the Senate, they had a number of talks about policy issues, from Israel to stem-cell research to the nomination of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
During the presidential campaign, Diament offered the Obama team advice on reaching out to the Jewish community — as he did also for Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain. At the request of an Obama staffer charged with outreach to religious groups, Diament sent along a dozen ancient Jewish spiritual messages for the candidate to use, including passages from Pirke Avot and the Talmud.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Obama and the Orthodox Union during the campaign. Diament was quick to issue a statement praising Obama’s June 4 speech to thousands of AIPAC members in which the candidate declared the need for Jerusalem to remain Israel’s eternal and undivided capital. After Arab officials began to object, Obama’s camp backtracked, saying the candidate felt the issue should be left to the parties — a shift that triggered a second statement from Diament, this one critical of the campaign.
Despite the differences over Jerusalem, and the O.U.’s skepticism about a U.S. push for an Israeli-Palestinian deal, Diament said he believes Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are operating “fundamentally within the mainstream of U.S. policy toward Israel as it’s been historically” and are “motivated by a vision that the United States does have a special relationship with Israel.”
Overall, however, relations were good — enough that several Jewish insiders have been predicting wryly for months that if anyone from the Jewish communal world were to end up working in an Obama administration, it would be Diament.
Diament says he isn’t interested.
Diament came to the Orthodox Union in 1996 and moved the public policy office from New York to Washington two years later, in the late stages of President Bill Clinton’s administration. He recalls that by the time he had made contacts and learned his way around town, George W. Bush was arriving in the capital — and as one of the very few Jewish community backers of the faith-based initiative, a major policy objective of the new president, the Orthodox Union was invited to the White House for its initial rollout.
Diament noted that while that initiative and issues such as aid to parochial schools are generally Republican-backed policies, a number of of the O.U.’s other top priorities — such as legislation to protect religious freedom in the workplace, energy independence and support for Israel — are areas that garner plenty of Democratic support.
With a Democratic administration and Democratic-controlled Congress now running Washington, Diament said that the Orthodox Union will likely spend more time on an issue like a death penalty moratorium, which was unlikely to get much traction under a Republican administration. By the same token, he acknowledged that chances for passing legislation on vouchers for private and parochial schools, an issue the O.U. has backed for years, are pretty much nonexistent.
In a sign of the uphill climb facing the O.U., the release of the Democratic economic stimulus legislation contains $14 billion for a “green schools” modernization initiative but does not allow private and parochial schools to be eligible for any funds. From Diament’s perspective that’s a missed opportunity for Democrats: Earmarking a portion of that money for religious schools, or adding a few million more dollars specifically for that purpose, seems like a pretty easy way to reach out to faith voters.
Another will be when Obama rolls out his version of Bush’s faith-based initiative to provide government money to religious groups for social services. Diament is quick to note favorably that the president said during the campaign that he wants his faith-based office, and the council of advisers he plans to name, to not just be a place that doles out “dollars and grants” but helps set the national agenda. Diament says he is encouraged by what he’s heard so far about the structure of the office.
But Obama has said also that he opposes allowing groups that receive federal funds to take religion into account when hiring — a position that puts him on the opposite side of the O.U. Yet Diament points to other, less publicized statements by Obama that show more flexibility on the question, such as during a conference call with rabbis last fall when the then-candidate said he wanted faith-based organizations to participate in his universal pre-K proposal.
Obama has said he wants “all hands on deck in addressing social welfare challenges,” said Diament, adding that changing the rules on employment at this point would mean some religious social service providers might have to discontinue their programs. “In this environment” of great need, Diament said, “pragmatics should trump those other considerations.”
For Diament, being part of the political debate in Washington is a dream job. He grew up in Lynbrook, N.Y., the son of a Conservative rabbi, and said he has always been a “politics junkie.”
“My friends would watch football on Sundays, I would watch the Sunday talk shows,” he said.
Remarkably, the same Long Island town that produced Diament also was the hometown of his Reform counterpart, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the liberal movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington.
“I take a great deal of pleasure in that,” said Saperstein, who praised Diament for his “intelligence, persistence and articulateness.”
While acknowledging that the Orthodox and the Reform differ on some issues, Saperstein said Diament is always “respectful and effective” in the way he argues his opposition.
A Catholic leader described Diament as always knowing what’s happening in Washington.
“He has his ear to the ground,” said Nancy Wisdo, associate general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Instead of making five calls to the Hill, I call Nathan.”
Wisdo even compared Diament to Madonna — having nothing to do with singing skills or wardrobe preferences — but because “in our little world” of religious groups in Washington, he’s known by just the single name of “Nathan,” she said.
And for “Nathan,” being the O.U.’s man in Washington is a “responsibility and a privilege” that he is looking forward to continuing in a new administration.
“Barack Obama has laid out over the course of the campaign what principles and values animate him,” Diament said. “How decisions are going to get made is yet to be seen, but we’re pleased to be part of the conversation.”