Adam Szubin has been in New Jersey recently; his most public appearance — and his most controversial — has been standing slightly behind and to the side of Senator Cory Booker as the Democrat from New Jersey defended his choice to vote in favor of the nuclear deal with Iran in front of Jewish groups a few weeks ago.
Mr. Szubin was a logical presence at those meetings. He now is the acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes at the U. S. Treasury Department, and last month he spoke to Congress at the hearing that is a necessary step toward making that position permanent.
But his roots in the state go back much further than that — and so does his commitment to Israel.
Mr. Szubin (the initial S in his name is irrationally silent, so when it’s said aloud it begins with the Z) is Teaneck born and bred; he went to Yavneh Academy until high school, when he commuted across the river to Ramaz, the modern Orthodox day school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He and his family went to shul at Congregation Rinat Yisrael; “There is a whole population there of people who spent time in yeshiva, a well-educated congregation, and a thoughtful rabbi,” said Mr. Szubin, whose career makes clear that his respect for education is deeply held. “The rabbi,” Yosef Adler, “is wonderful, and incredibly well-educated” he continued. “He aims his divrei Torah at a very high level, and believes that you can follow him.”
Mr. Szubin grew up in a household surrounded by formidably accomplished people. His father, Rabbi Dr. Zvi Szubin, escaped the Nazis by going east, then west, then to Israel, as a teenager. Dr. Szubin came to the United States and established himself as a scholar whose deep understanding and heartfelt love of tradition, coupled with a willingness to look at text with a dispassionate, analytic eye, allowed him new, groundbreaking insight. To listen to him explain the meaning of such liturgical tropes as “l’olam va’ed,” which we understand to mean forever, as also a legal term meaning a very specific period of time, based on other Near Eastern formulations, simply is to marvel.)
The family was Orthodox, but “the fact that my father was affiliated with JTS” — the Jewish Theological Seminary, in upper Manhattan, is the academic center of Conservative Judaism — “and that he had such an innovative and open approach, really did leave me, I think, more predisposed to dialogue and conversation than some of my peers,” Mr. Szubin said. “I was always raised to be respectful of other people’s ideas — regardless of their religion or background — and I give my parents tremendous credit for that.”
He also went to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin for many years, he added. His father was on staff there as a teacher; the camp is run by the Conservative movement.
Mr. Szubin’s mother, Laurie Goldstein Szubin, had a less dramatic childhood than her husband’s. When first her daughter, Lisa, and then six years later Adam were born, “she was a pretty traditional stay-at-home mom,” her son reported. “She dedicated so much of her time to raising us. And then, when I got to high school and was a little more self-sufficient, she took the LSATs and applied to law school. She always had wanted to pursue a career. So from my sophomore through senior years she was at Cardozo. I thought it was so impressive at the time; later, when I went to law school, I understood how impressive it really was.”
Laurie Szubin took the bar exams in both New York and New Jersey and was accepted to both; eventually she became an administrative law judge in New York City. “She is such an impressive woman!” her son said. Her court ruled on parking and traffic tickets. “Imagine the stories you get when you do that,” he continued. For example, “a taxi driver who has gotten 45 tickets tells you that they’re all erroneous.”
Lisa Szubin and her husband, Jay Katzman, who live in Englewood, both are doctors; eventually, Laurie Szubin grew tired of practicing law and became the business manager of their practice. “Despite my urging, she shows no sign of slowing down,” her son said.
Because Dr. Szubin had an academic’s schedule, he spent a lot of time at home, “and every Wednesday he would go skiing with other people who had careers where they could take off Wednesdays,” Mr. Szubin said. “Two or three times a year, my father would take my sister and me out of school. One of my favorite memories is playing hooky. My father said, ‘You shouldn’t let school get in the way of a child’s education.’”
When his mother was in school, and his sister was away in college, Zvi and Adam Szubin “started eating out a lot,” Mr. Szubin recalled. “We didn’t know how to cook. I wrote my college essay about how my dad and I figured out how to cook together.”
After high school, Mr. Szubin went to Israel for his gap year. Although now it is almost entirely de rigueur for graduates of modern Orthodox day schools to do that, when he went that was not yet the case.
He studied at Yeshiva Har Etzion in Gush Etzion. “It was probably the most intellectually demanding place I have ever been, including college and law school, and certainly the hardest I’d ever worked,” he said. “We were in class from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., and it required a pretty high level in Aramaic. I wasn’t used to it.
“People said that when you came back from that year, college would be easy by comparison. I didn’t believe them — but they were right.”
From Israel, Mr. Szubin went to Harvard, where he concentrated in social studies. “I focused on the sociology of religion,” he said. “I was specifically drawn to messianic movements, and to religious groups that were expecting apocalypse or redemption within this generation.
“I started looking at Christian groups, and I wrote my college thesis on the Branch Davidian siege,” he continued. (The Branch Davidians were a cult that set up a compound in Waco, Texas; members were suspected of a number of illegal activities, including unlawful possession of firearms. The siege, conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the FBI, led to a fire, the deaths of most of the cult members, including many children, and decades of rumors and mythology.)
“That was in April 1993, and I started researching my thesis in 1994,” Mr. Szubin said. “I was fortunately able to make contact with a number of people who survived the fire. I interviewed probably 10 of them, and I wrote my thesis about their world view.
“I expected them to be very naïve, or credulous, or maybe uneducated,” he continued. “On the contrary — their average education was college level or beyond. There was nothing distinctive about the survivors except that they were fortunate, but they believed themselves to be unfortunate.” Their religious beliefs taught them that the Branch Davidians who had burned to death had been “taken in the initial culling” — and that this was a good thing. “The survivors were left in a lot of doubt and disappointment,” Mr. Szubin said. “That was fascinating.”
When he looked at what distinguished a group like the Branch Davidians, he found something he called its “present orientation.
“Most major religions, particularly Judaism, have a focus on the past and on the distant future, and often picture themselves at the bottom of a U-shaped curve,” he said. The dim past was glorious, and the unattainably-far-away future will be too, but the present is not at all good. But the groups he studied see “a steady growth, with their generation at the very top, so they don’t even have to forecast a distant future, or even a medium future. The people in Waco weren’t sending their kids to school, or training them for a profession. They expected the rapture within the next 10 to 15 years, so they had no need for job training.”
After he graduated from college, “I knew I wasn’t going to be academic,” Mr. Szubin said. “I knew I was going to law school. So I applied for a fellowship, and went to Israel on a Fulbright scholarship to study Lubavitch chasidism.” It was a logical move — Chabad’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, but its second largest center is Kfar Chabad, in Israel.
“It was fascinating to be there at that time, because you could see a beginning of a rift opening between the more and less messianic strands within Lubavitch,” he said. “It was manifest in things like how they would end their prayer services. There was a line that the messianists would proclaim at every opportunity — ‘Long may he live forever.’ The people who believe he had passed away weren’t comfortable with that, although they still believe that he was the greatest Lubavitcher rebbe. You would watch certain people get up and silently walk out. Those types of small things are the indicators of a potential rift. Next, you have different types of services, where people don’t have to hear what they don’t want to hear.
“I ended up writing a chapter in a book about it,” published by Brill Academic Press, he added.
Next, Mr. Szubin returned to Harvard for law school. “I pretty much knew that I wanted to do public service,” he said. “I clerked for an appellate judge, Ronald Gilman, in Memphis, and I applied and was accepted to the Department of Justice’s honors program. It’s how they do a lot of their entry-level hiring out of law school.
“I knew that I wanted to help the world, and I also was mindful that some of the public service career routes just didn’t pay enough for what I would need to earn to start a family. DOJ seemed like the perfect balance,” he said. He was a trial lawyer in the Justice Department’s civil division for three years. “After 9/11, I wanted to do counterterrorism cases,” he said. He did; when three Islamic charities whose funds the Treasury Department withheld from them sued the United States government, Mr. Szubin was on the team that defended the government, and won.
“That got me working on terror financing,” he said. “Ultimately, I followed Stuart Levey,” the first undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, when Mr. Levey moved from Justice to Treasury. “He took me along to be a senior advisor in 2004.”
In August of 2006, Henry Paulson, then the secretary of the treasury department, named Mr. Szubin to head the Office of Foreign Assets Control; he was there until he became acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes. (It feels obligatory to add here that despite the organization’s name, it is not for terrorism and financial crimes but rather works to stem them.)
Mr. Szubin has maintained his strong connection to the Jewish community. Married and the father of three sons, he is one of the founders of the DC Minyan. It grew out of his friendship, begun at Harvard, with the founders of Hadar, the very traditional, very serious, and fully egalitarian minyan on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The DC Minyan does not quite use Hadar’s model, nor is it quite a partnership minyan. Instead, it has established its own form of egalitarianism, with separate seating, both men and women leading, and the need for a (small-m) minyan made up of 20 people — 10 men and 10 women. “I am comfortable with the halachic underpinnings of our egalitarian approach,” Mr. Szubin said.
Mr. Szubin supports the nuclear deal with Iran, and he does so as a strong supporter of Israel.
“I have very strong pro-Israel feelings,” he said. “I was raised with an appreciation for all that Israel is, and all that it represents.
“My job is to represent the United States, and I never lose sight of that,” he continued. “The message I hope to send is that I believe the deal with Iran addresses what has been one of the leading threats to Israel. People who are pro-Israel should take a careful look at the agreement, because I believe that it is in the interest of stability and safety in the region.”
Adam Szubin’s father, Zvi Szubin, talks about his son — and, he is quick to add, his daughter, as “exceptional kids.”
They were taught to love Israel — and also to love, honor, and respect their identities as Americans, he added. “We instilled in our children a love for Judaism and Israel and a love for America and its exemplary democratic system that accommodated newcomers, their aspirations, and their traditions,” he said.
“With Adam, I remember that he was always protecting the underdog, whether someone was being bullied on the bus or at school. He always had a soft spot for the oppressed. Sometimes I had to tell him to temper it a bit.”
As Mr. Szubin sees it, he still is protecting the underdog — but now he has a federal office to help him do it.