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Profile Democratic Staffer, Jewish Leader Straddles Two Worlds in Washington

May 3, 2006
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When Tom Kahn is at work leading the Democratic staff in the U.S. House of Representatives’ Budget Committee, he and Pete Sessions, a veteran Republican congressman from Texas, usually are at odds. After work, the two buddies regularly find agreement on Israel, anti-Semitism and other issues of concern to the Jewish community.

Sessions says he respects Kahn’s expertise in those areas. After all, off the Hill, Kahn is president of the Washington chapter of the American Jewish Committee.

It’s not an unusual duality for Kahn, 50, whose commitment to tikkun olam — the Talmudic concept of repairing the world — informs both his jobs.

With the 2006 budget going to the House for final approval this week, Kahn has had a low-profile but pivotal role in determining tax and spending spending priorities across the country.

“The budget really gives me a chance every single day to advocate and to manifest the Jewish values of caring for people who are not able to care for themselves,” he told JTA in an interview in the AJCommittee’s downtown Washington office.

Kahn’s Jewish commitment is not lost on his Hill colleagues.

“His Jewish faith is an omnipresent factor,” said Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), ranking member of the Budget Committee, who has employed Kahn for two decades — an unusually long time in a town known for its rapid turnover.

“It is clear that it is something deeply seeded with Tom,” Spratt said. “The convictions he tries to act upon every day are rooted in his Jewish faith.”

Kahn was content working in a large Wall Street law firm in 1985 when his father abruptly fell ill and died. Suddenly, life seemed too short to be uninspired, he thought.

A year later, the Boston native followed his heart to Washington, where he previously had worked as a junior staffer on Capitol Hill while earning his law degree by night at the Georgetown Law Center. He would pursue his twin passions: public policy and Jewish causes.

“I call it a nice marriage between the two,” said the wiry, silver-haired Kahn.

As backstage point man for the minority Democrats on the committee that draws up the blueprint for the national budget, a position he has held for 10 years, Kahn has helped mastermind Democratic opposition to Republican policies.

“He shapes the whole philosophy of what they are going to do,” said Sessions, also a close friend of Kahn’s who traveled to Israel in 1997 on one of four trips Kahn has co-chaired in the past.

Hill publications routinely recognize Kahn’s influence. Roll Call lists him as one of the “Fabulous Fifty” most influential staffers in Congress.

Kahn describes a “relationship of respect and comity” with Budget Committee chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa).

Notwithstanding such courtesies, Kahn is forthcoming about his “profound disagreement” with the majority party.

“The Republicans since they’ve been in charge have been so focused on tax cuts; and ‘tax cuts at any price’ is what has driven their budget from the beginning,” he said.

He blames those cuts for the budget deficit and cuts in programs he and other Democrats consider vital.

Kahn counts as victories Democrat successes in blocking or blunting Republican cuts in housing, Medicaid, Medicare and student loans.

Each year of his tenure, Kahn has overseen the production of a Democratic alternative budget, a proposal that can never be enacted in a Republican-controlled House.

This year’s plan, according to Kahn, calls for more funding for childcare, student loans, veterans’ health care, education and environmental protection, and includes a modest set of tax cuts.

In addition to his work at AJCommittee, where he is also national vice-president, Kahn is on the board of the Washington Jewish Community Center, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the National Jewish Democratic Council.

He is particularly proud of his service on the board of Project Interchange, a branch of the AJCommittee that sponsors study missions to Israel for journalists, politicians, academics and college student-body presidents.

On the Hill, he is vice-president of the Capitol Jewish Forum, a collection of Jewish House and Senate staffers. The group organizes events around the Jewish holidays and holds various classes.

“He really is almost one-of-a-kind as someone who is deeply embedded both in the public sector and in the Jewish world, and uses his connections to better both,” said David Bernstein, executive director of the AJCommittee’s Washington office.

Raised as a Reform Jew in suburban Boston, Kahn credits his mother and especially his father, a real estate developer and Jewish community center president, with influencing his values.

“My father was a man who was deeply committed to the underdog, deeply committed to helping people who couldn’t help themselves. He was also deeply committed as a Jew and as a supporter of Israel,” Kahn said.

In 1968, as a precocious 12-year-old, Kahn campaigned on the streets of Boston for one of his greatest heroes, Hubert Humphrey, a strong advocate of both civil rights and Israel.

As an undergraduate at Tufts University, Kahn spearheaded the campus’ first Jewish Federation campaign and, at age 19, became the youngest person ever elected to the city council in his hometown of Brookline, Mass.

Kahn spent the year after his college graduation studying in Leningrad, where he was actively involved in assisting Jewish refuseniks.

His activist passions have not diminished, and he counts black-Jewish relations as one of his highest priorities.

He has something of a counterpart in his friend Lorraine Miller, who also wears two hats as president of the Washington Chapter of the NAACP and a senior adviser to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The AJCommittee and the NAACP work together closely on issues such as the genocide in Darfur and voting rights for the District of Columbia.

Kahn at times relishes the duality. He was married 18 months ago to Susana, a Dominican Jew, in a Jewish ceremony at the Washington hall of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Chabad’s representative in Washington, married the two. He called Kahn the “epitome” of what a Jewish leader should be.

“Tom is always a man on a mission, and usually leading the mission,” he said.

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