WASHINGTON (JTA) — By now Ron Bloom’s professional road to becoming the Obama administration’s car czar has been widely reported. Missing from the coverage, however, has been any mention of those formative years at Jewish summer camp.
Born in New York City and raised in Swarthmore, a suburb of Philadelphia, much of Bloom’s early life revolved around Habonim (now known as Habonim Dror), a progressive Labor Zionist youth movement that emphasizes cultural Judaism, socialism and social justice.
It’s all part of an upbringing that the man overseeing the country’s bailout of the U.S. auto industry cites among his earliest influences.
“I had an aunt in the teacher’s union,” and relatives who were “Hebrew butchers and Hebrew bakers," Bloom recently told JTA in an exclusive interview a few days after returning from a trip to Israel to attend the 80th birthday of an uncle who moved there several decades ago. "My grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe; that was very much in my upbringing,” Bloom said.
Bloom’s parents met at a Habonim summer camp in the 1940s and moved to Israel, intending to make aliyah. Though they changed their minds and moved back to the United States, Habonim remained an integral part of their lives.
“My parents had always been supportive of doing something that we found meaningful,” Bloom said. “There was always a view that what’s going on in the world matters. We talked politics at the dinner table. Life was about engagement in the world.”
At age 10, Bloom was sent with his two siblings to Camp Galil, a movement-run summer camp near Doylestown, Pa. He returned each season for the next four years and later became a camp counselor.
One of campers was Jack Markell, who years later would become the governor of Delaware. Bloom reconnected with Markell, as well as with several other old Habonim friends, upon arriving in Washington for his new job. They are now “offering me home-cooked meals,” said Bloom, who is commuting between his family in Pittsburgh and his job in Washington.
Bloom recalled camp as “a fun experience” that afforded him the opportunity to “meet people from different places.” He said he never intended to go into the Labor Zionist movement professionally.
Addressing the question of how the experience influenced him, Bloom said, "It’s all a tapestry, and it’s hard to figure out what fits where."
He says Habonim infused him with values that influenced the way he views public service. “We sang the songs, but it wasn’t about that," Bloom said. "It was a broader sense of identifying with the underdog, and of observing the world through a lens, through people who don’t have as much and aren’t as lucky.”
The Labor Zionist movement prides itself in its direct connection with union work and its ability to inspire leadership, said Kenneth Bob, the president of Ameinu, the Labor Zionist organization that provides funding to the Habonim Dror youth movement.
Prior to his ascent in the Labor Zionist movement, Bob was actually Bloom’s counselor at Camp Tel Ari, Habonim’s leadership training institute. He recalled Bloom as being “a very serious, engaged person, there for the right reasons, to drink in the experience and learn as much as he could.”
Bob said there is a “great deal of pride” within the Habonim community regarding Bloom’s new position in the Obama administration.
“There’s definitely been a buzz on the online alumni listserv,” Bob said. “People are very proud, very supportive of Obama and excited about the things he’s trying to do, and to have one of our own helping.”
Bloom’s expertise in both private banking and the labor union movement, as well as his reputation as a passionate but pragmatic negotiator, helped him land what he says is the job of a lifetime.
A graduate of Harvard business school, Bloom worked as an investment banker for a decade before leaving the financial sector to take a position — and pay cut — with the United Steelworkers of America. Then, when Obama came into office, he became an aide to Rattner at the Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry. When Rattner resigned after just five months, Bloom took over as car czar.
Now, there’s speculation in Washington that Bloom will be offered a new position next month overseeing manufacturing policy for the Obama administration.
Bloom said his decision to join the administration was, in part, the product of a broader sense of engagement and desire to improve the world, which he developed in his Habonim years. “That’s part of what I try to do in my work life," he said. "That’s one of the things that made me want to work for Obama.”
As for the possibility of future assignments in Washington, Bloom said that the difficulties of commuting and the strain it places on his family would need to be taken into consideration.
“I’m not in a position to talk about future,” Bloom said. “I will stay as long as the president wants me to stay. If there are opportunities, I’ll consider them.”