Sarah Hurwitz is a wizard with words. As a top speechwriter for some of the most prominent political players of our era — including former President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton — Hurwitz understands the importance of strong and evocative storytelling.
“Words have tremendous power to move and inspire people and to help them summon courage, compassion and hope, even in difficult and frightening times,” said Hurwitz. “Unfortunately, words can also be used to stir up anger, fear, resentment and bigotry.”
Hurwitz shared her story of being a Jewish woman in the Obama White House at Jewish Professional Women’s annual “LeadHERship Event,” hosted on June 4 by The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore. JPW provides professional networking, personal growth and community engagement opportunities for career-minded women.
“Listen to your inner voice,” Hurwitz told the group of approximately 170 women. “Listen to what is true to you, even if others don’t understand it. And when it comes to writing, make sure you show instead of tell. Most people don’t do that.”
The LeadHERship event — which was held at Suburban Country Club, 7600 Park Heights Ave. — is JPW’s end-of-the-year signature gathering. The event aims to highlight influential Jewish women inside and outside of Baltimore’s Jewish community.
“Sarah’s story is a compelling and meaningful story,” said Rachel Garbow Monroe, moderator of the LeadHERship Event and president/CEO of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.
A graduate of Harvard University and Harvard Law School, Hurwitz, 38, began her White House career in 1998 as a college intern in Vice President Al Gore’s speechwriting office.
After graduation, she worked as a speechwriting research assistant for former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Hurwitz subsequently worked on a handful of national campaigns, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential bids.
“Being a speechwriter is mainly about channeling the voice of the person you write for,” said Hurwitz, a native of Wayland, Mass. “In an ideal speechwriting relationship, you’re not scripting the person. Rather, you’re working with them to hone their own language, ideas and stories.
“Empathy is a critical characteristic of a good speechwriter,” she said. “You need to be moved by the struggles, successes and aspirations of the American people in order to tell their stories in a vivid, moving and memorable way.”
Hurwitz describes working in the Obama White House as “absolutely wonderful. The Obama White House was an incredibly diverse place, and the staff was urged to embrace and celebrate who they are.
“I have such warm memories of attending the White House Chanukah parties,” she said. “I’ll never forget the year that everyone spontaneously broke into [the Chanukah song] ‘Maoz Tzur,’ and I thought to myself how my grandparents never could have imagined anything like this.”
During her time with the administration, Hurwitz helped craft some of Mrs. Obama’s most memorable speeches, including her 2016 Democratic National Convention address featuring the now-famous slogan, “When they go low, we go high.”
“Mrs. Obama came up with that line — all I did was type it into the speech,” said Hurwitz. “Michelle Obama knows who she is and she always knows what she wants to say. The process for that speech was similar to the process of other speeches I worked on with her. It would always start with me asking her, ‘What do you want to say?’ and she would then dictate pages of ideas, language, stories and themes for the speech. I would then shape all the language she dictated to me into a draft and she would edit it, with often multiple rounds of editing.”
Although she no longer works in the White House, Hurwitz continues to be a storyteller. About five years ago, Hurwitz – who grew up “with minimal Jewish education” — took an introduction to Judaism class that changed her life.
Hurwitz wrote a book about her circuitous Jewish journey titled, “Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There).” The book, published by Spiegel & Grau, is set to be released in September.
“I was blown away by what I found [in Judaism],” she said. “There is a high ethical bar and helpful guidance [in Judaism] about how to be a good person, numerous practices to foster spiritual connection and all kinds of beautiful, meaningful rituals. I couldn’t believe what I had been missing.”
Hurwitz advised her audience of women: “Carve out space for the thing you love and that lights your fire. Judaism isn’t just about me it’s about connecting to a group of people who are in some ways my family.”
For information, visit associated.org/jpw.