'Rahmbo' takes Washington with Obama
Allison Hoffman – Jerusalem Post November 7, 2008
On Rosh Hashana, Rahm Emanuel called his rabbi with a question: Could he violate the holiday to sit in on a conference call about the $700 billion bank bailout package that congressional Democrats were fiercely trying to revive?
It didn't take long for Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who heads Emanuel's modern Orthodox congregation in suburban Chicago, to give him an answer.
"I told him it was my halachic opinion that the financial system was on the point of failing and it could be a disaster, and this was a matter of life and death, to get this passed, as long as the violation was kept to a minimum," Lopatin told The Jerusalem Post.
"This is modern Orthodoxy at work - committed to Judaism, but committed to making it a better world," Lopatin said.
As Democratic officials confirmed Thursday that Emanuel, 49, had accepted the job of chief of staff in US President-elect Barack Obama's new administration, friends and colleagues from Chicago to Washington described him to the Post as a dauntless political warrior and peerless tactician who had cemented his reputation as a consummate Washington general with his leadership of the Democrats' congressional takeover in 2006.
"He tends to be more pragmatic than ideological - as a leader of the party, he's been more focused on the practical aspects of moving the agenda forward," said Richard Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee's Washington office, who first met Emanuel during his stint as an adviser in president Bill Clinton's administration.
Yet Emanuel was also described as a fiercely principled Jew and supporter of Israel, where his pediatrician father, Benjamin, was born and volunteered for the Irgun before moving to America.
Emanuel, whose family name comes from the first name of an uncle killed in a 1933 skirmish with Arabs in Jerusalem, went to summer camp in Israel as a boy and grew up speaking Hebrew with his father.
"He is unabashed about his own connection to Israel," said Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund-Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
"If he goes to the White House, he'll be going to serve the president - but Israel will have a friend in the White House," Kotzin told the Post.
Emanuel's selection was to be formally announced on Friday.
The man nicknamed "Rahmbo" - derived from his political style, not his record as a volunteer helping the IDF during the First Gulf War - got his start in politics after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1981, where, a talented dancer, he studied ballet.
Emanuel worked for a consumer rights organization in Chicago and then for a Senate campaign in 1984, as well as for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, before becoming a fund-raiser for now Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1989.
In 1991, after returning from Israel, Emanuel joined Clinton's campaign as a fund-raiser and stayed on as a White House adviser - developing a power base in the capital, and also becoming a model for Josh Lyman of The West Wing, the popular television show written by Clinton alumni.
Emanuel returned to Chicago in 1998 after marrying his wife, Amy Rule, and went to work for investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein - a move that he acknowledged in a 2002 interview with The New York Times had netted him $7.3 million, enough to guarantee financial stability for his family, if not to compete with the millions his younger brother, Ari Emanuel, rakes in as a powerful Hollywood talent agent. (The younger Emanuel also serves as the model for a television character - the explosive Ari Gold of the HBO show Entourage.)
In 2002, Emanuel decided to make a run for an open congressional seat on Chicago's North Side.
He earned support among adults who had been his father's patients as children and from the legions of police officers and firefighters who took the endorsement of Emanuel's uncle, a police sergeant. However, he faced a bruising battle in the Democratic primary that included anti-Semitic broadsides raised by Polish supporters of one of his opponents.
In response, he gathered religious leaders to condemn the smears, which included allegations that his loyalty was to Israel, rather than to America.
"They tried to bring out the worst of ethnic divisions, and by being strong, he showed he wasn't going to tolerate anti-Semitism," recalled Lopatin, who was among the clergy Emanuel called on.
Emanuel - whose spokeswoman did not reply to a request from the Post for an interview - later said the moment was one of his proudest.
Last updated 11/11/2008