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You Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone (January 2018)

Rabbi Mike

Carol and I spent Friday in the company of Sarah Hurwitz. Sarah was the invited guest and speaker at the Phillips Academy’s Jewish Cultural Weekend, an annual event of the school’s Jewish Student Union. As the Jewish Chaplain at the school I was integrally involved in planning her visit.

Sarah is originally from Wayland. Although trained as a lawyer, she became a speechwriter for several prominent politicians, including John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. Most notably, she eventually became the head speechwriter for Michelle Obama, and was responsible for several of Mrs. Obama’s most memorable speeches.

One of the occasional perks of the work I have been doing in recent years, particularly at Phillips and the Central Massachusetts Jewish Federation, has been to invite speakers and entertainers to programs sponsored by these organizations and to get to interact and spend some time with them. While some have more name recognition, Sarah is one of the most memorable and inspiring I have encountered. She is incredibly bright and personable, down-to-earth and accessible. She clearly thrived on interacting with our students and responding to their insightful and perceptive questions.

And needless to say, she has incredible stories about her experiences with the public figures she worked for, particularly Michelle Obama.

There are three take-aways, among many, that I would like to share with you from what I learned and heard from Sarah:

  1. Do you remember when the truth mattered? Sarah described the incredible fact-checking process that every one of her drafts went through in the Obama White House before they were approved for delivery. Layers upon layers of proofing and reading and re-reading by various departments to assure that what was to be said was correct. Even seemingly minor details were scrutinized. In this post-truth, “alternative facts” administration, I look back at that time when truth and facts mattered in the White House with nostalgia and anger.
  3. Do you remember the days of a fairly scandal-free White House? Do you remember when our President was a man of character and decency? When no news on the integrity and scandal fronts was good news? Sarah Hurwitz recalled how she had taken out insurance to protect herself professionally, and how she never needed it. She recollected the White House she worked in in which virtually no one ever needed to “lawyer up.” Again, times have changed.


  1. Sarah’s pending visit to Phillips brought back memories of the Obama years and prompted me to explore some videos and podcasts from those bygone days. It was not that long ago, although it feels like ancient history. I was reminded of what an incredible family the Obamas are. Barack and Michelle are incredibly devoted to one another, and their affection and mutual respect are palpable. I recall how, in one of his addresses toward the end of his tenure, the President was thanking a number of people. When he came to Michelle, there were tears in his eyes. His love and gratitude were readily apparent. And of course, they are both incredible loving parents, and Sasha and Malia are blessed. Once again, how far we have fallen.


In the words of Joni Mitchell (and more recently the Counting Crows), “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” I did know and I valued what we had, as many of us did. Those were the days, my friends. How far we have regressed is both sad and shameful.

To end on a much more positive note, back to Sarah Hurwitz. The title of her presentation was “A White House Speechwriter’s Jewish Journey,” and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that journey. In short, Sarah had set aside her Judaism more or less since her Bat Mitzvah, and has returned to it as a young adult as a result of her encounter several years ago with Jewish meditation. She is now deeply immersed in exploring Jewish texts, values and ideas, and is working on a book about Judaism. She assured me it will be thoroughly fact-checked. I would expect no less from her, and I look forward to reading it.

Thu, June 13 2024 7 Sivan 5784