‘Inspiring,’ ‘resilient,’ ‘compassionate’: Sarah Hurwitz shares story of reconnecting with Jewish values

Photo: Rory Moore | Mercury Staff Photo Illustration: Erin Gutschke | Mercury Staff


“Four thousand years of wisdom from my ancestors” — this is what Sarah Hurwitz, renowned speechwriter and author, gained from reconnecting with her Jewish roots, discussing theology, activism and much more at Hillel’s Teach-In event on April 16. 

UTD hosted the talk from Hurwitz as a part of a speech tour with Hillel International, a campus organization that supports students as they “continue to develop their Jewish identity” during college, according to their website. At the event, Hurwitz discussed her time as a staff writer, her relationship with Judaism, antisemitism on college campuses and her engagement with student activism. Hurwitz began her political career in 1998 as an intern in Vice President Al Gore’s speechwriting office. She began writing for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for president, and after his election, later shifted to writing for First Lady Michelle Obama.  

Jade Steinberg, psychology freshman and president of UTD Hillel, said they met Hurwitz by chance while on a trip to Atlanta, Georgia. At Hillel International’s Israel Summit in February, Hurwitz helped Steinberg draft their speech to present at UTD Student Government’s cease-fire resolution public meeting. 

“Before I even met her, I was deeply inspired,” Steinberg said. “Seeing the way that she could talk about rampant antisemitism, but not in a combative way. She was compassionate about it… I have been looking for a way to find that mutual compassion to have these dialogues.” 

Hurwitz said that when she was growing up, she was uninvested in Judaism — her experience with the faith amounted to “two excruciating services a year at the High Holidays.” For much of her life, Hurwitz said she identified as a “cultural Jew” — even though she really knew nothing about the culture. Then, after feeling lonely and bored from a breakup in her 30s, she enrolled in an Intro to Judaism class at a local community center. After reconnecting with her roots, Hurwitz published her novel “Here All Along” in 2019, which explores theology, ethics and values, connecting readers with the “radical transformative tradition” of Jewish wisdom but in a conversational tone. 

“I signed up [for the class] just to fill time, but what I found absolutely blew me away,” Hurwitz said. “It was four thousand years of wisdom from my ancestors, wisdom about how to be a good person and how to lead a good life and how to find profound spiritual connection.” 

Hurwitz said she rediscovered the central theme of Judaism, which is that all humans are “created in the image of God.” This is drawn from Genesis in the Torah, often quoted in brief as “b’tzelem Elohim,” meaning in the image of God. According to Hurwitz, this concept represents that all humans are truly equal. While many of us claim to believe this, Hurwitz said we often fail to live up to this ideal, viewing people differently based on how famous or how rich they are. Hurwitz views the “in the image idea” as profoundly radical, that truly honoring it would require restructuring society and that our failure to honor it is linked to many social problems. 

“Every single person is infinitely worthy — you cannot put a price on a human life,” Hurwitz said. “No one is more valuable than anyone else, there is no one like each one of us on the planet, and we’re irreplaceable.”  

The values Hurwitz discovered through the Jewish faith translate directly into her philanthropic ventures, including educating college students about making a more meaningful life and volunteering in hospitals as a chaplain. In her time as a chaplain in the oncology ward, Hurwitz said she tried to give courage to others as they walked a thin line between life and death, a concept Hurwitz referred to as “thin spaces.” Hurwitz said she saw many patients who were satisfied with their life’s course and wanted to die, a desire not always understood by their loved ones. Hurwitz gained a deeper understanding of the Jewish faith by empathizing and validating patients’ feelings about death rather than judging them.  

“The secular world tells us to run like hell from thin spaces, we cannot stand death, hurt, illness,” Hurwitz said. “Jewish tradition tells us … you run like hell right into those thin spaces.”  

Melissa Friedensohn, executive director for Hillels of North Texas, said that Hurwitz’s volunteering is an inspiration, along with her personability, warmth and approachability. Friedensohn said she thinks that students can benefit from Hurwitz’s life story of always bouncing back and persisting in her career of speechwriting despite failures. 

“That type of resilience resonated with all students and community members in the audience about what failure can teach us,” Friedensohn said. 

Hurwitz said that what she calls the recent increase in antisemitism on college campuses shocked her, as well as the binary thinking shown through some students who view Israel as on the level of the KKK or the Nazi party. She said she spoke with many students who felt uncomfortable on campuses due to their Jewish identity and the backlash against Zionism, which has increasingly become a buzzword associated with ‘evil.’ She said she feels that while many countries have done wrong, Israel is held to a double standard in that Jews who support it are criticized for identifying with it in any capacity.  

Hurwitz views this as a modern conversion demand; this refers to the tendency of Western cultures to demand that Jews assimilate and give up aspects of their identity so they can be seen as more tolerable. According to an article by Jerome Friedman, forced conversion to Christianity has been practiced in many countries across Europe, including Spain, Germany and Italy, and it has been such an intense issue that crypto-Jews, Jewish people that hid their background to avoid persecution, became a common phenomena in Europe.  

“It’s wrong for students to be policing minority students’ identities,” Hurwitz said. “It’s wrong for people to be harassing minority students for their viewpoints or their identities or their backgrounds. So whatever label we want to give it … bullying’s not okay.” 

Hurwitz said she thinks is it is important for Jewish students to give themselves a break and disengage from combative people where necessary. She encourages Jewish students to be open to accepting the invitation to discuss these issues with others, provided they are kind and respectful. Friedensohn said she hoped that the immersion in Jewish culture brought by the talk could be a “strengthening experience” to any students who feel uneasy at the current political climate. Overall, Hurwitz recommended that Jewish students focus on groups inclusive to all and that they take pride in the long history of Jewish resilience. 

“You are a part of this four-thousand-year tradition,” Hurwitz said. “That is so unbelievably extraordinary. I mean, the wisdom that we’ve generated, the incredible people that we’ve produced. The fact that we are still here … I think there’s a reason for that. And that’s something to be incredibly proud of.” 


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