Hill Climbers: Called to Serve

Posted August 1, 2008 at 4:30pm

Yuri Beckelman was practically raised on a picket line. The son of a union organizer, Beckelman was distributing strike leaflets and being photographed next to Cesar Chavez before he was old enough for kindergarten. Such an upbringing is almost guaranteed to instill a sense of civic-mindedness, so it’s no wonder that Beckelman has decided to dedicate his career to public service.

And as an aide to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Beckelman has the opportunity to bring his progressive values and seemingly bottomless enthusiasm for his work to Capitol Hill. [IMGCAP(1)]

“I don’t take it for granted, where I get up to go to work in the morning,” Beckelman said. He got his start in politics in San Francisco and moved to Washington two years ago to intern for Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). He was hired by Pelosi in her personal office in March 2007.

Beckelman recently took on another role on the Hill: co-chairman of the Congressional Jewish Staff Association.

Although he was raised in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood in San Francisco and in a house headed by a Southern Baptist mother and Jewish father, neither of whom were especially religious, Beckelman said his early experience at a liberal, progressive synagogue attracted him to his father’s faith.

“Service to justice is so important in the Jewish community,” Beckelman said.

That mindset led him to pursue a degree in global studies from California

State University at Monterey Bay, which he received in 2006. Although he said he misses San Francisco, he appreciates Washington because so many people have come here to work for a particular cause.

“I love that public service is the main industry here,” he said. “So many people living in D.C. all care about something, even if it’s the exact opposite of what I care about.” [IMGCAP(2)]

His father also instilled a strong attitude of acceptance, which will help Beckelman as he seeks to bring together Jewish staffers who run the spectrum from observant to more moderate lifestyles.

“It was never forced on me,” he said of his faith. “[My father] was like, if I was a good person, I was a good Jew.”

Beckelman said that going forward, he hopes to accommodate and connect with Jews coming from all different viewpoints to discuss some of the questions they all face.

“It’s about getting together good people doing the same kind of work and having a dialogue of being Jewish in politics, Jewish in D.C. and what these pieces all mean,” he said.

Beckelman will be joined in his efforts for the association by co-chairman Micah Edmond, a military legislative aide for Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio). They’re quick to acknowledge that they have different political ideologies, but they say their differences can work to their advantage.

“Between the two of us, we represent the whole spectrum of what you can be as a Jew,” Edmond said. In addition to being from different political parties, Edmond pointed out that he has a more Sephardic, or darker, physical appearance, while Beckelman has the fairer appearance of Ashkenazi Jews, many of whom claim Eastern European countries as their ancestral home. Both are hoping to convey that Jewish staffers looking for their niche or some kind of community can find acceptance and varying opinions in the staff association.

Edmond, who came to the Hill after spending eight years in the Marine Corps, also felt called to a life of public service. After graduating from Williams College in 1996 with a degree in history with a concentration in international relations, he spent two years as an investment bank analyst for Citigroup in New York. Then, one night in 1998, after seeing “Titanic” with his parents, he sat them down and announced that he was joining the Marines.

“I had friends who are Israeli, and they would tell stories. Everyone there serves [in the military],” he said. “It was wild to me. I couldn’t imagine being an American and not serving in the military.”

Now that he has fulfilled that sense of duty, Edmond has broadened his efforts to championing the cause of service members coming out of the military and looking for positions on the Hill, as well as helping to get jobs for would-be Jewish staffers.

“Just being Jewish, you’re very much imbued with a tradition of ‘you have to do something’” to serve, he said. “If you don’t, who’s going to?”

Edmond, 34, echoed Beckelman’s desire to reach out to Jewish staffers and engage people in conversation about the various questions they face.

“Everyone’s trying to define their kind of Jewish,” he said.

He and Beckelman have agreed that their style of leadership will be absolutely bipartisan. And they already have common ground to start from — Edmond is a self-described “huge fan” of Beckelman’s boss.

“My mother used to work at Saks Fifth Avenue, and I know a little about women’s fashion,” he said. “Every day I’m dying to see what the Speaker is wearing. No one would expect that from a Marine and conservative Republican.”

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