Joe Biden’s Jewish outreach director Aaron Keyak on why the
former VP’s time has come
Photos: AP Images
Two weeks ago, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign tapped Aaron Keyak, a longtime political strategist and consultant from Washington, as the campaign’s director for Jewish outreach.
Keyak is the managing partner and co-founder of Bluelight Strategies, a Washington-based consulting firm. He previously served as the communications director for Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), and as the communications director and top Middle East advisor for former Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ). Keyak is Modern Orthodox and attends Washington’s Kesher Israel congregation.
During the 2012 presidential election, he headed the campaign media “Hub,” a rapid-response research and media outreach team that promoted President Barack Obama’s message regarding foreign policy issues to the Jewish community. Following Obama’s reelection in 2012, he became interim executive director for the National Jewish Democratic Council. During the 2008 election and for the first year of Obama’s term, he led the Council’s press operations.
I first met him when I arrived in Washington in 2016. Together with his partner in Bluelight, Steve Rabinowitz, Keyak maintains a working relationship with many reporters and Jewish organizations in the nation’s capital — who, together with House members and policymakers, usually meet at Bluelight’s “vodka and latkes” Chanukah party, a festive candle-lighting in their office.
But for the next four months, Keyak will focus on one mission — to get Jewish voters, especially in Florida, to turn out and vote for Joe Biden. Some voters are worried about the party’s shift toward the far left. Keyak says the presumptive Democratic nominee is far from that.
“Vice President Biden has been very clear,” he told Mishpacha in an interview. “He is not a revolutionary candidate. And at the same time, he is not a center-right candidate. He’s Joe Biden. He’s had decades of experience, and he’s had a record going back years as a vice president and as a senator. And I want people to look at that record.
“When it comes to the US-Israel relationship, he’s been very clear. He is a strong supporter of our strategic partnership. He helped negotiate the $38 billion memorandum of understanding — the biggest aid package ever that the United States has agreed to. The Obama-Biden administration supported Iron Dome, even though their predecessor didn’t, and as far as calls to condition aid to Israel, he’s been clearly against it. He’s against conditioning aid. He’s been clear in his opposition to the BDS movement.”
Speaking about his personal acquaintance with Biden, Keyak told Mishpacha that he got to know him during his time as vice president. “I saw him when he was speaking from the podium to the Jewish community; when we went to the vice president’s residence for a Rosh Hashanah celebration, and I’ve heard from people and rabbis who have seen him in intimate conversation during a shivah visit. He has humanity and empathy and a connection to a community that is genuine. When he’s wearing a kippah, and he’s visiting for a shivah, you almost want to count him for a minyan.”
Keyak recalls a conversation with his wife when he considered taking the position at the campaign.
“We talked about how in 2016, I thought Clinton was going to win. And I thought she was going to win until about eight o’clock election night,” he remembers. “And I forced myself to stay up until 3 a.m. and watched Trump’s acceptance speech. And it was clear that even Trump didn’t think he was going to win it. And the thing about if you have a 70% chance or G-d willing an 80% chance, there’s still a 20% that you’re not going to win. And we have to fight like we’re down a few points in the polls to ensure that doesn’t happen. I want to wake up the day after Election Day, look at my three-year-old daughter, and then look at myself in the mirror and know that I did everything I could to ensure that Trump does not get a second term.”
Usually, a director of outreach would live out of his briefcase, traveling from one swing state to another, trying to energize as many voters as possible. But amid COVID-19, Keyak is working mostly from home, as the Biden campaign is avoiding large rallies. Traditionally, between two-thirds and three-quarters of Jews votes for the Democratic candidate.
However, Keyak’s role, like that of most of the campaign, is to focus on the seven swing states that will decide the election: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Arizona. The most significant is Florida, where both candidates are in a virtual tie. Jewish voters account for three to four percent of the votes in the Sunshine State. With 29 members in the Electoral College, Florida is without a doubt the most prominent “prize” among the swing states — and it’s the only one in which the Jewish population is large enough to make the difference, potentially. And while Keyak is being diplomatic and speaks about a “50 states approach,” it is safe to assume that most of his Zoom meetings and virtual rallies focus on Florida.
During the conversation, Keyak repeated the words “humanity and empathy” multiple times. He believes that beyond politics, these are to most important qualities of his candidate.
“I think part of it comes from the unique tragedy of his experience with personal loss,” he says. “When he talks about sacrifice or he makes a shivah visit, he taps into this well of human understanding that most people don’t have. When you come up against a crisis like COVID-19, when you see hundreds and thousands of Americans dying, by the end of the year, he doesn’t see hundreds of thousands. Although he understands the figure, he sees individual losses. That’s the type of person we need as president during these times, not just to understand the enormity of the tragedy, but that each individual loss is catastrophic for the family that they left.”
Our readers are concerned about protections for religious freedom and education being eroded. What is Biden’s position on that issue?
“There was a recent Supreme court ruling about it. Joe Biden respects institutions, and he will follow the ruling of Supreme Court. He’s a religious man himself; he is a strong believer in the separation of church and state, which strengthens the right of religious people to believe in what we believe in.”
His closing argument is about the need to heal the country. Keyak says he never experienced anything like the pandemic crisis in his lifetime.
“The failures of the Trump presidency and his lack of ability to even do the bare minimum at times to combat COVID-19 has led to the American people just wanting some decency and some dignity and some empathy,” he continued. “And on those three things, there’ll be no bigger contrast between Trump and Biden.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 820)
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