Alan Solow to give keynote JCC talk


Chicago attorney Alan Solow wears many hats — and kippot: busy attorney with a major law firm; active in his own Jewish and general community as philanthropist/activist; chair of the Jewish Community Centers of North America and chair of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations.

If that were not enough to keep him busy, he is a longtime friend of President Barack Obama, whom he has jokingly called, “America’s first Jewish President.”


Solow comes to town to speak on the topic, “Jews and World Politics in the 21st Century: The 2008 Election and Beyond,” at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 13 in the Staenberg Family Complex, Edison Gymnasium, as part of the community-wide Opening Celebration Week of the Staenberg Family Complex of the Jewish Community Center of St. Louis.

Solow recently spoke to the Jewish Light from his Chicago office. He said he was “thrilled and honored” to be part of the opening festivities for the local JCC Staenberg Family Complex, and answered questions on his multiple roles in the Jewish community, his friendship with Obama and how he balances them all.

Your topic, “Jews and World Politics in the 21st Century: The 2008 Election and Beyond” is a pretty daunting subject. What are some highlights of what you plan to cover?

One of the things I will talk about is how the Jewish vote, in certain respects, is not much different from the overall American vote. The Jewish vote in the 2008 election in favor of Obama was slightly more heavily Democratic than the vote for Kerry was in 2004, just like the American public voted slightly more for the Democratic candidate than they did in 2004. Therefore that reflects in part the fact that American Jews are by and large like other Americans. This notion that there is some particularized Jewish vote out there is a bit misleading. On the other hand, you have to weigh that against the fact that Jewish voters in any election, at least since Franklin D. Roosevelt, tend to vote heavily Democratic. So you have to at least try to understand why that is, and why that continues. The second thing I will talk about is whether or not there is a unified Jewish position with respect to the relationship between the United States and Israel and how that played out in the 2008 election.

You have been quoted as smilingly describing Barack Obama as the ‘first Jewish President.’ What did you mean by that?

Without being excessively stereotypical, I think that President Obama processes his analysis of problems almost in a Talmudic fashion. He is someone very interested in thinking about both sides of an issue before he comes to a conclusion. He’s an excellent questioner and a fabulous listener. From time to time he’ll ask me a question on something he thinks I know something about. I’ll give him what I think is a pretty smart answer, and I’ll be ready to sit back self-approvingly of what a fine job I’ve done. Then he’ll ask me three more questions that test the thesis that I just proposed to him. And they are unerringly penetrating questions. Also, there are some cute stories about how he ‘gets’ what it’s like to be in a Jewish family.

OK, I’ll bite. Let’s hear one.

In September of 2008, I went to Oxford, Miss. for the first debate between Obama and (Sen. John) McCain. There was a lot of security there, so I didn’t get a chance to see Obama that evening. When I got into Chicago, I sent a note to his Blackberry that I had been in Oxford…and was sorry I didn’t get a chance to see him. Five minutes later I got a message back from his Blackberry that said, “Sorry I missed you in Mississippi, and also in Chicago at my fundraiser last week, but I did get a chance to meet your beautiful new granddaughter. Hope you have a sweet High Holiday.” Here it was early September and not only did he realize that Rosh Hashanah is on its way, but he understands the relationship between sweetness and the New Year. He also showed he really understands what it is to be Jewish when he said he had met my beautiful new granddaughter.

Of the 51 organizations under the umbrella of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, how many have been adversely affected by the Bernard Madoff scandal?

We don’t track that. I would say, it’s been less than a majority. But it’s hit some, and it’s hit some pretty hard.

What lessons have Jewish organizations and others learned from this whole messy Madoff affair?

I think everybody is reviewing their processes and procedures with respect to their investment policies. The fact of the matter is that a number of the organizations hit by Madoff had good policies in place and they followed them, and yet notwithstanding that, they got hit by Madoff. The guy went through several SEC investigations that in effect cleared him. It shouldn’t be a surprise that some people could still be reasonably diligent, act appropriately, and still get hurt. Now, we need to find ways to be even more careful. One thing for sure, people will not invest as heavily in a single investment adviser as they might have done previously.

There are many Jewish officials on the Obama team, including Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, economic advisor Larry Summers, White House advisor Rahm Emanuel and foreign policy experts like Dennis Ross and Richard Holbrooke. Do you have any concern that if things go badly with the economy, anti-Semites will blame it and the Madoff affair on ‘the Jews’?

Well, there has been anti-Semitism in the world since time immemorial and in the United States since its foundation. It’s ebbed and flowed. But the fact is that anti-Semites don’t need an excuse to be anti-Semitic. And they will choose to seize whatever they choose to seize on to try to make their point. So I don’t lose a lot of sleep personally over people who will seize on public figures who are Jewish or an incident like the Madoff incident to justify their anti-Semitism. In terms of Madoff in particular, Jews are human beings, and not all of them are perfect. And we’ll have unfortunate examples, but those do not say anything about the Jewish people as a whole.