Remarks by Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew at The Jewish Theological Seminary Commencement Ceremony


NEW YORK – Chancellor Eisen, faculty, trustees, friends, family, and graduates: Thank you for inviting me to celebrate with you today, and thank you for this honorary degree.  Thank you also to my friends, Vice Chancellor Gary and Professor Gampel who presented me for this honor.

Graduates, congratulations.

You are a special group.  I look around and I see tomorrow’s leaders¯congregational rabbis, cantors, teachers and theologians.  I see faces eager to share all that you have learned.  And perhaps, I also see a bit of relief that all of the long nights poring over notes and texts, that led to this important occasion, are behind you.

I also see a lot of family and friends who have done so much to support you along the way.  Congratulations to you as well.

And I may be looking at the only “conservative” group that would greet me so warmly.

We gather to celebrate your commencement.  You are moving forward into the community and the world at a time when fresh leadership is so needed.  As you leave these study halls to take your place as a new generation of leaders, I want to use my few minutes with you to reflect on what it means to be a leader in our complex times.  And why looking out at all of you gives me reason to be hopeful about our common future.

The tapestry of our larger American community is woven together from our unique personal and particular communities—which are so often bound together by men and women like you.  Being a religious leader means being a force in the everyday lives of the people you serve, and the communities we all call home.  And this is as much a social statement as a religious tenet.  As our tradition teaches—“lo bashamayim hi”—torah does not live in the heavens, but here on earth in the day to day lives we each lead.

We all learn lessons in leadership by observing those who played a role in our personal lives.  I have been blessed to have role models both in the communities where I have lived and in the world of national and international policy for so many years.

I want to start close to home. 

I grew up in Queens in the 1960s, during a turbulent time¯from civil rights to questions of war and peace, and an emerging awareness about the fragility of our planet.

One of my early role models was the rabbi of our synagogue, Ben Zion Bokser.  He was a leader in this institution as a theologian.  Through his gentle but strong voice and through his actions he also demonstrated that the issues of the day demanded our attention and participation.  It was not enough to talk about civil rights, you had to stand together with leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, and take a stand on local issues, even when unpopular.  Our beliefs about justice required action as well.

He taught me—and so many others—a powerful lesson: that the actions we take in the daily lives of our families and our communities are, in so many ways, a measure of our faith. 

Lo bashamayim hi.

As I have moved ahead in the larger world, in so many ways I have found that holding onto our tradition and practices has helped to give me strength and clarity of direction.  I have drawn strength from islands of time on shabbat and holidays to stay connected with family and friends, and from values that go to the core of who I am.

But again leaders matter so much. 

I have worked for two presidents and a House Speaker with boundless respect for traditions other than their own¯from different calendars and schedules to different foods and different approaches to worship itself.  As I reflect on the examples they set, and on modern trends in religion, I come back to how central that tolerance and respect for others is, and that tolerance and respect often begins in our homes and places of worship. 

Each of you will be called on within the Jewish community and the larger community to be role models for that respect and tolerance, traditions that have long been a hallmark of this institution; from interfaith religious dialogue, to a focus on building bridges within an increasingly fragmented Jewish world.

As a young aide to House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr., I learned so many important lessons in how to lead my own life.  He had many folksy expressions, but one in particular—“it’s nice to be important; but it’s more important to be nice”—summed up a lesson we learn from the prophet Micah, who enjoins us to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

It is not easy to balance power and humility.  It is hard to manage complex institutions and decisions, and maintain the compass that has a line north to justice and mercy.  It is hard to feel mercy in the face of the many challenging people and situations that fill our days and, in your line of work, so often the nights. 

In the Torah portion this week, we learn this lesson yet again.

We are told to challenge those who behave badly, but to do so kindly and without holding on to thoughts of revenge.  We are told to love our neighbors.  Later, from the prophet Amos we read that as God gathers the Jewish people, not even the smallest or most coarse particle will fall to the earth.  A powerful lesson—hold your beliefs firmly, deal with people kindly, and find value in each person.

I think that is what Mr. O’Neill meant by his homiletic lesson.  Being a leader so often means treating others in a way that makes them want to follow or join.

In the fractious 1980s, Mr. O’Neill demonstrated that by maintaining personal relationships and communications with others whose views were so different than his own—including President Reagan—so we could move the country forward in ways that make a difference in the lives of real people.  Securing Social Security and Medicare meant stability for a generation who would otherwise not have the golden years of retirement.  Offering a helping hand to those working their way out of poverty with an Earned Income Tax Credit builds a bridge to a better life ahead.

As I assumed positions of leadership for President Clinton and President Obama, I carried with me the lesson that policy is not about numbers and balance sheets.  Even budgets tell a story of who we are and what we believe¯they sum up our hopes and dreams for our country and our people.

My first assignment for President Clinton was to help create Americorps, to bring together through service to our community young and old who want to give something back, and strengthen the bonds that make one great nation.  President Clinton believed that everyone should have the opportunity to serve—not just those who could afford to take off a year without pay.  Two decades later, nearly one million have served in that program, which today plays a big part in so many of our communities, from providing role models in troubled neighborhood schools, to manpower when floods decimate a community, and where our neighbors need a helping hand.

Of course, leadership and service can take many forms. 

How we use the bully pulpit, and how we exercise the authority of which we are custodians for our time of service reflects both our values and what lessons others will learn from our leadership.  Those choices confront me every day at the Treasury Department, where the work goes far beyond ensuring the stability of our economy and our financial system, as important as that is.

President Obama never lets me forget that economic progress is not measured only in national statistics, but also by how it figures into the lives of people working hard to get into, and stay in, the middle class.

Despite the tremendous strides our economy has achieved since the Great Recession, far too many Americans lack the ready access to financial services that you and I take for granted every day—even a simple checking account.  With no connection to the financial system, too many people cannot qualify for the most basic credit, and are left to struggle with expensive, and sometimes dangerous, alternatives to traditional banks.

So what are we doing about it?

We are working with financial institutions, schools, and community organizations to teach financial literacy—and we are linking summer jobs to new bank accounts.  And we started a new retirement program for people who do not have retirement plans at work, and cannot meet the conditions of most private savings plans.  myRA has no fees, no minimums, and no risk—a starter account to help people begin to build a stronger financial future.

We also have the responsibility to look beyond our immediate communities and to use our financial tools to make the world a safer place.

Through our work on economic sanctions, Treasury played a vital role in helping to bring Iran to the negotiating table for meaningful discussions that ultimately resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that all of you are so well aware of.

From the start President Obama made clear our intent. 

The United States, and our partners around the world, would impose tough nuclear sanctions against Iran for one purpose: to create the pressure needed to bring Iran to the negotiating table to close all pathways to develop a nuclear weapon—giving diplomacy a chance to succeed in a space where the alternative would be military conflict that should be the last resort.

Iran understood that certain sanctions would be lifted only if they took meaningful steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

The Iran deal accomplished what many thought impossible—cutting off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon.  And, importantly, at the same time, we have kept in place all of our sanctions authorities to continue targeting Iran’s support for terrorism, its human rights abuses, its regional destabilization, and its ballistic missile program—just as we always told the Iranians we would do. 

When Iran kept its commitment and closed the pathways to a nuclear weapon, it was imperative that we keep ours as well—and we did by lifting nuclear-related sanctions as promised, and providing clear guidance about what sanctions were relieved and which remain in place.

Looking back on the past four decades, I could tell more stories to illustrate the power of leadership, but today is about you, and about the future.

Those of you about to take positions of leadership in communities around the country will become the leaders a new generation looks up to.  Your communities will look to you for religious counsel, but also as role models who demonstrate how to deal with the decisions within our community, and the issues where your own views demand that you take a position on matters of justice, war, and peace.

Your leadership and your words will have an impact on how others approach civil discourse, at a time when—more than ever—we need to tackle the challenge of communicating differences with respect.

I began with a story about my childhood rabbi in Queens.  I would like to end with a story about my current rabbi in the Bronx, Avi Weiss.

When I moved back to New York in 2001, and was looking for a synagogue, I went to the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Rabbi Weiss welcomed me.  We had met a few times, and while it was clear that we shared much in common in terms of our approaches to religion and issues of social justice, we had every reason to believe that we held different views on many political issues.

Rabbi Weiss sat down next to me on my first visit to his synagogue and welcomed me by saying, “if you make this synagogue your home, no matter what the political issue, I will never use this pulpit to make you uncomfortable.”  For 15 years he has kept that commitment and taught me a powerful lesson that I would like to leave you with.

As you go forward with the passion that brought you here, creating a community of faith and love means binding together people with different views.  Binding together our larger community means extending the principles of respect and understanding to people and communities who hold different beliefs, and with whom we will not agree on all issues.  By your example, you have the power to be a role model and truly lead to the perfection of our communities and our larger world.

Seize the opportunity that lies before you as you commence.  The journey ahead is daunting, but exciting.  I know you will do extraordinary things. 

Thank you again for having me. Congratulations b’hatzlacha.