October 6, 2022
After more than 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Ted Deutch recently stepped down to become the CEO of American Jewish Committee (AJC), the leading global Jewish advocacy organization.
In this special episode, learn about the Jewish values instilled in Ted by his parents, growing up in the working-class town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania where he was one of only three Jewish students in his high school. From his summers at Camp Ramah in the Poconos to his Jewish leadership as a student at the University of Michigan – Ted’s experiences as a Jewish leader inspired him to become a fierce advocate against antisemitism and in support of Israel in the halls of Congress.
As he begins this exciting new chapter at the helm of AJC, Ted describes his commitment to enhancing the well-being of the Jewish people and Israel, and how he will help AJC build a brighter Jewish future.
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MANYA BRACHEAR PASHMAN: This week, American Jewish Committee enters a new chapter with a new CEO. Ted Deutch served seven terms in Congress and during that time emerged as a powerful voice for democratic values and the Jewish people. He also became an outspoken defender of the U.S.-Israel alliance, when that defense was needed more than it ever had been. While Ted has been a guest on our podcast before, he joins us now for the first time as AJC’s CEO. Ted, welcome back to People of the Pod.
TED DEUTCH: Well, thanks.
MANYA: So, we have a lot to get to because we want to introduce you to our audience and really let them get to know you. So, let’s launch right into it. Tell us about your upbringing.
TED: I grew up in Bethlehem. I'm the youngest of five. There is an 11 year gap between me and the next closest sibling, my sister and then my three brothers are older still, and 19 years between my oldest brother and me. I am, as my mother eventually came to refer to me, a pleasant surprise.
My father was a painting contractor. They lived in Bethlehem because after he grew up in Chicago, he enlisted in the army after he graduated from high school, was sent by the army to the army specialized training program that was at Lehigh University in Bethlehem.
He met my mother at, I think not surprisingly, at a bagel brunch at the synagogue at the JCC where I grew up, and it's a long story of what happened after. My dad went to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. My mother wound up befriending his family in Chicago and one thing led to another and he wound up moving back to Bethlehem, where he married my mother and raised our whole family.
MANYA: I imagine Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was much like the small town blue collar communities where I grew up. Describe Bethlehem for us.
TED: Bethlehem is home to Bethlehem Steel, which was the company that helped make the steel that helped us win World War II, that was the way we always talked about it when I was a kid. And the steel company, it was the largest employer in Bethlehem. So many people, either their families had some connection to Bethlehem Steel or they either worked at Bethlehem Steel. In my dad's case, he was a painting contractor. He painted the offices of Bethlehem Steel, he painted the houses of Bethlehem steel execs. Had an enormous impact on the community.
Over the course of my high school years it started winding down. It was also sort of the end of a great American company which we watched happen in real time. But down Main Street, Broad street downtown, there was one movie theater downtown, there were two actually for a while. And yes, there were little shops and there was a magic shop that I used to ride my bike to after school, when I was little. It was a nice place, a nice community to grow up in.
MANYA: Did Bethlehem have a sizable Jewish community?
TED: Not a large Jewish community by any stretch. There was a very close knit Jewish community that had been there for a long time, multiple generations of families. It was the old model where in one building, we had the JCC and our synagogue. So, on the first floor, where you walked in, we actually had the gym and the pool. And then the second floor were the classrooms in the auditorium and the third floor was the sanctuary. So we spent a lot of time there, between Hebrew school and basketball and Shabbat and the rest.
So it was a really nice community but definitely not large. And fortunately for me, it was a community that welcomed a new Rabbi when I was a kid, and one of the first things he decided was that the synagogue needed to send kids to Camp Ramah and it was Rabbi Judah's decision to encourage that.
And I was one of the first, I think it might have been the first to go, and that had an unbelievably significant impact on my Jewish life and the way I view the world and everything else I've done since.
My first year at Ramah, I was 12. I was not quite a Bar Mitzvah, that I know for sure, because I invited camp friends to my bar mitzvah, where I gladly sang Ramah tunes, hoping and expecting that they would all join in and found myself doing a lot of solos during my Bar Mitzvah. My friends didn't quite step up to the moment, but very good memories.
MANYA: You mentioned that Bethlehem Steel helped win World War II and your father fought in the Battle of the Bulge, for which he won a purple heart, I believe. Can you talk a little about how he balanced his American patriotism and his Jewish pride?
TED: He went off and fought in World War II and fought the Nazis and, and took with him these two books, both of which I still have. One, a prayer book, the small prayer book, one, a small book of Jewish thoughts that they gave to all of the Jewish members of the armed forces in World War II. The fact that he carried those around with him, still had them and the fact that I have them now is really special.
In the siddur, there's a page where there's a small tear right down the middle. And if you look, and he explained this to me, it was torn down just so that he could have a small sheet that had a Shin on it. And this was what he taped above his bunk when he was in the army, and it was his way of having a little Mezuzah, just to reflect the fact that -- here’s a Jewish soldier who was there, as an American and as a Jew.
MANYA: You were telling me earlier about United States Army Specialist Daniel J. Agami, back in 2007. He did something very similar.
TED: There's a family who lost their son in recent combat, who went to war and had an Israeli flag that he hung above his bunk and refused to take down despite the fact that they were fighting in a Muslim country. I think about that some, in that straight line from my Dad's experience to this Jewish soldier and the kind of patriotism that the Jews have shown for the country that we live in for so long.
MANYA: You were one of three Jews in a class of more than 2,000 students. Did you encounter antisemitism growing up?
TED: There were neighborhoods in my community that still had deed restrictions, where people weren't allowed to sell their houses to Jews. There occasional experiences I had, with people who made comments that were antisemitic. I, for a lot of people, was the only Jew that they knew. I was the Jewish kid. So it's just something that I dealt with from time to time. Which is when my father would share some of his stories.
MANYA: And in addition to sharing his own experiences, what advice did your parents give you about confronting that antisemitism?
TED: That's a really good question, Manya, that I haven't been asked and haven't really thought about in a while. My father's advice was clear. Obviously we’re talking a lot about my dad, but my mother, she was very smart, had a very strong Jewish identity, she was a very strong woman. And the advice from both of them was to always stand up for yourself and never let people get away with it, and to be strong and be proud and to let them know that. That's a hugely important lesson that I've taken with me my whole life. It's frankly, one of the most important things that AJC does, is to help create strong proud members of the Jewish community, who also won't simply back down and let people get away with it.
MANYA: You went to the University of Michigan for undergrad as well as Law school, and it’s where you met your wife, Jill. How did you end up going from Bethlehem to Ann Arbor?
TED: It's interesting, my sister went to Penn State, I loved visiting her and the big college experience. I thought I might like to do that. And everybody I talked to had only good things to say about Michigan. It was also by the way, right about the time that The Big Chill came out. Not that my life was guided by fiction, by a movie. But it was literally right at that moment we were making college decisions. And here's his movie about this group of friends that come together for a sad occasion. I don't know if you saw it or are familiar with it, but, boy do they love Michigan. It's when I heard from everyone I talked to, I had friends from my Israel trip the summer before who were going to school there. And it just became the natural destination, and everybody was right. It's an amazing place. And I had an incredible experience there. And met Jill there, which of course makes it the best of all.
MANYA: You chaired the University Hillel’s governing board, and you were co-editor of Consider magazine, which was launched by Hillel. And this was a magazine that made it its mission to solicit compelling arguments on multiple sides of an issue. Kind of, stoking conversation, right?
TED: I was proud to do it when I was in college, but thinking about where we are now in this time where everyone has their own social media feed that plays to the things that they're interested in passionate about, criticizes the things that they don't like. Everyone has their own, their own feed, their own cable news channel. They are more and more associated with people who believe the things that they believe we were, I think doing an important service that I don't want to overstate it. But when you look back, we could, I think, benefit from a willingness to engage a little more with people whose views are different than ours. And that's what it was about.
It’s interesting to think about the conversations, the debates we have today, where we always want to just make this a black and white issue. You either believe this or you believe that and as you point out, in almost every occasion there are substantially more than two sides and there's nuance and engaging in a sophisticated way, requires a lot more than then simply throwing down the gauntlet and saying I'm right and you're wrong, or as is troubling these days- I'm right and you're terrible or you're an idiot or you're evil or all of the other things that people say now instead of engaging in meaningful debate.
MANYA: But I have to ask, how does that jibe with AJC’s advocacy role? I mean, journalists foster conversation. But as an advocacy organization, AJC picks a side.
TED: There are different sides on different issues. When a conversation is really appropriate, occasionally there are things that are just so clear, that it becomes paramount that you stop trying to look for some competing argument and stand on the side of what is clearly just and right, and in the best interest of a better world.
The best example is when you take the position that we should deny life-saving support to an ally in Iron Dome, the Iron Dome replenishment debate. When you say that you can't support funding for that program, which saves the lives of Israelis and Palestinians, and has prevented conflicts from escalating, and has been used to protect civilians when terrorists from Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are sending rockets, aimed indiscriminately, but meant to to kill civilians? If you can't support that, if your position is such that this particular ally, only one ally, Israel, which happens to be the only Jewish nation in the world, that if your position is that you can't even support the kind of program that saves the lives of civilians against terror attacks, then there's only so much I'm going to engage on.
MANYA: Of course, you’re talking about the debate about the Iron Dome funding last spring that pitted you against Rep. Rashida Tlaib. She was actually in your own party. I want to talk about that a little more. AJC is nonpartisan. And while you were in Congress, you earned a reputation for sometimes bucking party lines. You didn't side with Democrats on the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal, you supported the Trump Administration’s Abraham Accords. Why did you break rank like that?
TED: At a time when partisanship rages, fighting antisemitism can't, we can't allow that to fall prey to that to partisanship. And likewise, defending the US-Israel relationship and supporting Israel and in handling Israel's position in the world also shouldn't fall prey to partisanship. And that means being very clear, when people take positions that are for partisan reasons or anything else, are outside of the broad consensus that has existed and continues to exist in Congress and in America, that we should support our allies. And, then when it comes to fighting antisemitism, as we've already discussed, that we should come together for the benefit of security of the Jewish people, but also because we're ultimately protecting much more than that when we fight antisemitism.
MANYA: You first went to Israel before your senior year in high school with Camp Ramah and you believe being on the ground there really is important to comprehend its significance, its complexities. I personally have not been, so I’m sincerely looking forward to AJC Global Forum in Tel Aviv next June. Since that first trip as a high school student, you’ve been to Israel countless times now – what memories stick with you?
TED: When you have the opportunity, when you go to Israel and you go to Jerusalem and the Kotel and everything that you've done, whatever connection you've had to Judaism, it immediately comes to life. I remember the conversations that we had with Israelis while we were there, which is still something that I think is really important to do every time you visit, that it's not just about looking at sites, but to actually understand the connection that we have as Jews, with people who live in Israel. And to think that this is a place that we're praying about, hoping for, for 2000 years.
And every time I go back, I walk into someone's house for Shabbat dinner and some of the shuls and various minyans. Some had already ended, some were ramping down. You could hear from everywhere you walked, people davening. You just think about how unique that is, to be in a Jewish state like that. Every time, I mean, every time that's something that I'm thinking about.
MANYA: You introduced a number of your congressional colleagues –both Republican and Democrat – to the Jewish state. But I’d like for you to tell our listeners about one trip in particular that you took with fellow Floridian Ileana Ros Lehtinen – a Republican congresswoman at the time – back in 2014. While you were there, the bodies of three Israeli teenagers were found. Kidnapped and killed by Palestinian terrorists linked to Hamas.
TED: Ileana and I went on an official trip together. The first time we were there, the timing was such that we were there for Jill's, my wife's cousin's son's Bar Mitzvah. So we went to this bar mitzvah dinner, and celebration. And we were there just after we had all participated in events all over the country all over the world, about the three boys that had been missing, and all these events took place, and everybody was praying for their safe return.
And it was during the bar mitzvah, that all at this one moment, everyone's phones went off. And everybody looked. It was this incredible moment where the news broke that the bodies of the boys had been discovered, and that they had been killed by terrorists, and which is what so many people had feared. And so first, there's this moment where, where people didn't know what to do, but because it's Israel, and most importantly, it's a simcha. There was almost this defiance, that even having just received this terrible news. People were more passionate about dancing the hora, and about celebrating this bar mitzvah. And that was a really powerful moment.
And then we completely rearranged our schedule for the next day, so that we could attend the funeral for the boys. And there was so much that was so powerful about it, when we pulled up and it looked like literally half of the nation of Israel was walking toward this funeral. And, and Ileana and I had the opportunity, we were privileged to sit in the front. And the funeral itself was so powerful, the whole experience was so powerful, but then we made a shiva call.
And we had the chance, it was a of all the things I've been able to do in Israel, this was a such a powerful moment for me, because we had the opportunity to pay respects, not just because we were on this trip, but we were on an official trip and we could pay our respects, offer our condolences on behalf of the American people, on behalf of the Jewish community that had been that had been praying all over the world. And as I explained to some of the students who were there, the fellow students of those who were killed. And as I explained in the best Hebrew that I could, that I wanted them to understand that it's one thing to say that, you're not alone at this moment. But having participated in these massive events the week before in my community and in Washington. I wanted them to know that I knew exactly what I was saying and that there were people all over the world who were literally mourning with them.
MANYA: You did that here as well in the United States as well, attended shivas I mean, after the school shooting that killed 17 in Parkland.
TED: I haven't ever thought of that parallel. In both cases. I was an elected official. I was in a place that I desperately wanted to avoid, or I would, I desperately would have prayed that, that the circumstances that led me there never happened. And in both instances, and so in Florida, I went to a lot of funerals after February 14, and a lot of them were Jewish funerals.
That's a moment when emotion is the rawest that it can possibly be and, in both cases, we did what we're told to do at shiva: we sat and we listened. We listened to stories about, in both cases by the way, the young lives cut short and all the things that these kids had done in their short lives, and all the things that they would have done if they hadn't been killed. There are a lot of similarities. And coming out of both of those is the rededication to the important work.
MANYA: So, what’s in store for AJC with you at the helm? Do you have big ideas you want to implement?
TED: It's not my plan to come in and, and start to make drastic changes, I'm going to come in and I'm going to listen to everyone, and understand at a deeper level, the work that's done. But the one thing I know for sure, is that that the effort to defend the interests of the Jewish people, to create resilient Jews, wherever they live, to defend all 15 million Jews in the world, by fighting antisemitism, educating people on antisemitism, advocating because ultimately AJC is an advocacy organization, building the relationships that will help to strengthen the community, and speaking out boldly, when it's necessary to make sure people understand what's at stake here.
Those are the things that I look forward to doing. But more than anything else, there is so much work that AJC does to advocate for the Jewish community around the world. And, and to, to enhance Israel's place in the world. And to speak out for human rights, and democracy.
There's so much work that's done that people don't know about. And when you have an organization that's engaged in advocacy, that means you're advocating on a whole host of different issues. And sometimes, we forget that- not we, AJC. But the world forgets that they're all related.
And so when it comes to, to supporting Israel and standing up for the Jewish community, to be able to know that that we are advocating for the community wherever they live, from Seattle to Chicago, to New York, Buenos Aires, Paris, Jerusalem, and to do it by building the relationships at the local level, at the federal level in Washington, with the ambassadorial corps in Washington and Consuls General around the country. At the UN, where AJC is on the ground every day, at in capitals around the world with with foreign ministers and heads of state, those relationships everywhere in the world that AJC has built that its its volunteers and leaders have spent so much time engaged in, the intergroup work that has come from from that work. All of that strengthens the Jewish community. And, and, and helps to lift up Israel and its place in the world in a way that is unique.
MANYA: You’re coming from a role in Congress in which you fought for measures to slow climate change, curb gun violence, have peace with other countries, balancing the nation’s budget – a plethora of issues. Here, at AJC, you’ll be a little more focused on Israel and the Jewish people. But how are both jobs similar?
TED: We talked earlier about Tikkun Olam. And it's important and we're all engaged in that in all of the ways that we choose to be. But when I think about AJC’s work, if I'm looking to if I'm looking to our text, it's really it's it's called Kol Yisrael Arevim Ze Bazeh, right - We're all responsible one for another– it's all about Jewish peoplehood and the connections that we have, not just to our fellow Jews in our communities, but everywhere in the world.
In the United States, that means making sure that we all understand where we come from, which is both all of the things that our history has provided us –the contributions that we've made to history as a whole, and the impact that history has had on us.
MANYA: You are a father of three young’ns in their 20s. Very accomplished, young’ns in their own right, I should add. Why should AJC be paying more attention to their generation?
TED: AJC has this unique opportunity to take the existing program than it does for young people, early in their careers, the programming to create well-educated, passionate advocates, who are and will continue to be leaders in their respective communities, from their schools to their campus, to wherever it is they move when they graduate. That program is so exciting to me and the opportunity to see that continue to grow, so that all of these leaders can then engage in the work that we've just been discussing.
For AJC, for everyone, it means not just providing lessons, it means listening, and engaging with young people who have the capacity to lead right now. And we see it on Instagram, with some of the accounts that young people have set up. We've seen it all over social media, we see it in things that people write, we have to help build that up, meet them where they are, recognize that they're already leaders, contribute to their future growth. That’s an enormous opportunity. And I think that the way that AJC goes about its work can help do that.
Last thing I'll say is this. There are young people who have been so engaged on their campuses, on social media, sometimes feeling, and I had spoken to a number of them, sometimes feeling like they're on an island, and providing a real home for them to come together to confront these issues that they're facing. To help them understand what we can do to change the narrative by lifting up their voices. That's the moment that we're in that I think we really need to capitalize on.
MANYA: After the Parkland shooting, you really raised your voice about addressing the forces and circumstances that led to this horrific act of violence. How will that experience, which I know was life changing for so many including yourself, how will that inform the direction you lead AJC?
TED: I think the most important thing I learned during that whole experience was the power of young people, high school kids, who helped to start this whole movement from their dining room table and the leadership role that they play.
If we're not talking about the threat, then it's going to make it a whole lot harder for all of us who want to prevent these things from happening to succeed. So, yes, we've got to be clear, as we as we talk about, as we acknowledge this rise in antisemitism, and we have to focus on it wherever it comes from, and we need to be clear that the the threats that rising antisemitism pose are threats to the entire community.
I talked about this at the UN several years ago, the the fact is when there's antisemitism in the country that is festering and it affects not just the Jews, it is never just the Jews. The guy who went into that Walmart in El Paso. These are people who, so many of them at their core antisemites, you see it and what they've said and what they've written. So we should all be paying close attention to the rise in antisemitism. And we should be working with everyone we can to help educate them about the threat that it poses.
Yes, to the Jewish community, first and foremost, and so that the Jewish community understands that, that there is this recognition and that they can feel safe and and we can build resilience in the Jewish community. But also, for everyone else to understand that we're by tackling antisemitism, we're also helping to make our country and ultimately this is a worldwide phenomenon, clearly, we're helping to create a safer world for everyone.
MANYA: Ted, thank you so much for joining us, in your first week on the job, no less.
TED: Thanks. This is really fun by the way.
MANYA: Well, it’s been a pleasure getting to know you and I’m sure we’ll have you back on the air again soon.
TED: I look forward to it.