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Dr. Tevi Troy Joins the Straus Center as Senior Scholar and Impact Office Director


Tevi Troy 

This coming fall semester, Dr. Tevi Troy will join the Zahava & Moshael Straus Center for Torah & Western Thought as the center's inaugural Senior Scholar & Impact Office Director. A best-selling presidential historian and political scholar, Dr. Troy has previously served as Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services in the Bush Administration as well as Deputy Assistant to the President for Public Policy. His best-selling book Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump was listed among the Best Books of 2020 by the Wall Street Journal.  YUNews interviewed Dr. Troy about his White House career and his upcoming role at the Straus Center.

How did your religious identity shape your service in the White House? Where there any particular challenges resulting from your observance, for example, of Shabbat and Kashrut? And, maybe more significantly, did your Torah values inform your approach to public policy and public health?

I entered public service out of a sense of hakarat hatov [gratitude]. I was very grateful to this country for providing a welcoming home to the Jewish people amidst the tumult of the 20th century. I grew up concerned about some of the problematic developments of the 1970s, high crime, inflation, loss of America’s standing in the world — many of the same issues that we are dealing with today. I thought getting involved in public policy would be a way for me to give back to this great country at a time of need. As for keeping Shabbat and Kosher at the White House, there are, of course, always challenges, but I had tremendous support from my colleagues in the White House. First, everyone was very respectful of Shabbat. I remember my evangelical Christian boss tapping his watch at me when it was getting late on a Friday, reminding me that I had to get home for Shabbat. I also was concerned about working on the Bush campaign in 2004, given my observance of Shabbat and the 24-7 nature of political campaigns. My boss there said, "I’d rather have you for six days a week than someone else for seven." That statement alleviated any concerns I had. I did have one challenge when it came to Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that caused President Bush to say that the weekend was canceled for everyone. This naturally made me wonder about Shabbat, so I called my Rav, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, and asked him what to do. He explained the three reasons why I should not consider violating Shabbat even for this emergency: one was that I was a symbol to other Jews, and if I worked on this Shabbat, their bosses would pressure them to work on Shabbat as well. He added that the principle of pikuach nefesh [that the commandment to save lives overrides other commandments] didn’t apply since I was running policy, and not actually providing the life-saving materials to people in a direct way. Thirdly, for my own sake, if I violated Shabbat on this week, what about when there would be another difficult issue, such as a budget negotiation or legislative battle on the hill? Once you start on that slippery slope, it’s very hard to  continue on the path of no exceptions. As for my public health perspective, I was always taken by the Talmudic principle that he who saves one life, it is as if he saved the world (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). In the policies I worked on, specifically pandemic and bio-preparedness, I definitely had that principal top of mind when thinking through those policies.

Your well-regarded book Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump traces political feuds from the Cold War to the present. Is there a particular moment in American history that bears a resemblance to our nation’s current political climate? What lessons can we learn from past White House rivalries?

This period in our history reminds me of a strange combination of both the 1960s and 1970s. The 1960s, because of the political upheaval, including the riots in the streets each summer of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. The 70s because of poor outcomes developing out of unwise policies. We don’t need to be in a period of high inflation or high crime; bad policies led us to these places. But my study of history also shows that while bad policies can get you into the situation, good policies can get you out of it. Past White House rivalries taught me that there are ways to go about minimizing the impact of infighting. You can’t eliminate it, in any organization, but there are ways to channel it so that it doesn’t diminish organizational effectiveness. Also, clamping down too hard on internal rivalries creates a different risk, that of a bunch of yes-men and yes-women who don’t think creatively about how to get out of difficult situations.

You have partnered with YU students and faculty in the past; however, this will be your first official role at YU. What role would you like to see Yeshiva graduates fulfill in American society, and what are you looking forward to accomplishing at the Straus Center this Fall?

As a big believer in Torah Umadda, I want to help Yeshiva students who are committed to their Orthodoxy also find ways to fit into American society. Too often, people seem to choose one or the other: religious life or secular integration. I think my experience has shown that both are possible, and I want to convey lessons from my experience to students. As for the Straus Center, I think it is a perfect place for accomplishing this mission, as it attracts top students who are interested in the best ideas that both Jewish tradition and western philosophy have to offer.

You are not the only noteworthy Troy to leave a mark in the realm of political history and public policy. In January, your brother Gil Troy spoke to students of the Straus and Schottenstein Honors Programs about Theodor Herzl’s zionist legacy. Were the Troy brothers always drawn to politics? Was there a particular aspect of your upbringing that sparked an interest in political thought?

Politics and ideas were constantly floating around in the Troy household in Queens. My parents’ house was covered in books, and we were encouraged to read almost all of them (one notable exception being Ball Four by Jim Bouton. Of course we read it anyway). Friday nights were filled with discussions of literature, politics, and philosophy, and my parents encouraged us to argue in a friendly and respectful, but forceful, way. Gil likes to tell the story of a visitor who once came to the house and started crying because of the way we were yelling. We explained that this is the way we communicate. Also, I don’t think I realized the extent of this at the time, but my father was very involved in helping run guns to Israel in the early years of the state and in protesting the British government policies towards Israel in the 1940s. I think some of his political activism passed down to us. He was also a history teacher, which helps explain why both Gil and I got PhDs and became historians. My brother Dan went the law school route, but was also heavily involved in politics, serving as a political appointee in the Reagan, Bush, and George W. Bush administrations. It was he who inspired me to come to Washington, and work in politics.

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