By: Adam Kramer  | 

YU Alumnus Running for Congress

Oliver RosenbergAs a Yeshiva University alumnus running for Congress in New York’s 10th District, Oliver Rosenberg already has a unique story to tell. And, when coupled with the rest of his background, namely his participation in a panel in 2009 on gay people in Orthodox Judaism, his employment as an investment banker at JP Morgan specializing in renewable energy, founding a Jewish congregation for LGBTQ people and his experience starting multiple companies, he’s truly a fascinating candidate and person. Its this background--of which Rosenberg views YU as a major part and catalyst--that is critical to his story, and understanding both his decision to run for office and his positions as a candidate.

Rosenberg grew up in Los Angeles and attended Yeshivat Sha’arei Mevaseret Zion before attending YU. He graduated from YU in 2007 with a degree in Finance, and began working at a utility company called Sempra Energy. He worked in Connecticut for Sempra’s credit division, which was responsible for lending to small businesses that needed funding for their business. Rosenberg received a promotion right before the 2008 financial crisis, and was responsible for reducing the company’s overall risk and exposure to companies like Lehman Brothers, at a time when big banks like that were going down. The Sempra Commodities division was acquired by RBS, which subsequently had its own trouble and became government owned, so they put up the Sempra division for sale. JP Morgan stepped in to purchase it, but only took 20-25% of the company with them. With JP Morgan, Rosenberg first managed a portfolio of clients who were in the ethanol business, which at the time was a popular form of alternative energy. Later on, his job involved financing power and energy companies and projects, and he had the opportunity to work on financing wind power projects in about 7-8 states. Rosenberg relates that his last year and a half working on renewable energy was the most intense time in his professional experience, and was a big contrast from the entrepreneurial culture of Sempra. It included many late nights--Rosenberg said there were probably fifty nights in 2012 when he was at the office there past 1:00am. Looking back on his time at JP Morgan, Rosenberg related that one of the most important things he learned at JP was getting things done.

In September of 2012, Rosenberg left his job at JP Morgan and moved back to LA where he totally switched gears professionally. He consulted for two hospitals, which gave him the opportunity to see how the business side of hospitals runs, and where he could help them cut costs and be more efficient. He also started a small software company called UrgentCalm, which developed software to help improve the emergency room experience.

After a year though, Rosenberg wanted to move back to New York. He approached a few potential buyers to gauge their interest in purchasing Urgent Calm, but ultimately pushed the project to the side. With his next venture, he wanted to impact people directly, as opposed to having to work within a framework of a hospital and trying to affect change there.

Rosenberg moved back to NY and took a few months to utilize some of the resources in the New York startup scene, and plan his next venture, Prealth. Prealth, which stands for Prices of Health, is an app that lists healthcare options for consumers and compares prices. Rosenberg explained that he’s very motivated to work for companies and on projects that contribute to society in some way. His work at JP certainly fits into this paradigm as he was working extensively on alternative energy, and his startup projects also fit into this realm as well.

He believes this drive to help society began during his time at YU. He illustrated this through discussing how he sees and understands leadership. He believes that there are two types of leaders, those who covet a title and those for whom their leadership “comes from a sincere wanting to get something done or see something better in the world.” In this sense, Rosenberg quoted Gandhi who once said “Be the change you want to see in the world,” and remarked that it’s also a very Jewish concept.

Rosenberg’s first memory of stepping up to get something done was during his time at YU. He saw that fellow students in Syms were having trouble getting internships and jobs, and he realized that the alumni network needed to be leveraged much more extensively to reach this goal. He ran for president, wanting to bring new ideas to the school, one of which was a gala dinner for over 600 people. Against the wishes of the school, Rosenberg approached the board of directors directly, to try and secure the necessary funding for a gala dinner and networking event. The board agreed to the plan and gave the necessary seed money, and the first annual Syms dinner, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of Syms, took place. The dinner raised a profit of $150,000 which they earmarked for future student-alumni dinners. The dinners continue to this day. It is very much through this light that Rosenberg launched his entrepreneurial ventures.

Rosenberg made it abundantly clear how much value he places on leadership and doing good for fellow people and the larger community. Another value he holds dear is Shabbos, and he touched on his shabbos observance as well as his general religious beliefs and practices. In Rosenberg’s own words, “I view myself as very modern orthodox. Some might call it very modern orthodox, some might call it very traditional.” On a practical level, Rosenberg tries to keep Shabbos every week. Rosenberg related that Shabbos observance is especially difficult these days, since his campaign office is actually his house. Rosenberg mentioned a story that a few weeks ago late on Friday afternoon, Shabbos was about to start so he had to ask all his campaign workers to leave his house. And then around five minutes before Shabbos ended, they all started streaming back into his apartment to get back to work. He added that with the craziness, he didn’t end up saying havdala until around 11:00pm that night.

Though it might be a little unorthodox having a home double as a campaign headquarters, this is actually one of the most concrete parts of the campaign for Rosenberg. For his campaign, there’s no such thing as an average day; each day has different events and every week has a different style. This past week’s challenge was finalizing the signatures that candidates need to file to be added to a state’s ballot. In New York State congressional races, you need 1,250 signatures, but the Rosenberg campaign filed with four times more signatures than that. To get these signatures, the campaign utilized a whole volunteer operation.

These volunteers work together with Rosenberg, a campaign manager, two people working under the campaign manager, and a campaign strategist. The campaign is looking to add people too.

Rosenberg likened his campaign to “operating a lean tech startup. At first you’re trying to keep costs down, and you want to move fast, and it’s people coming together to work together, who haven’t worked together before, and every day is just go, go, go. Because of the time frame, it doesn’t really allow you to plan as much, and so it’s really just about doing something, learning from what happened, iterating, and acting again.”

For Rosenberg, leveraging his tech background isn’t just important in building out his staff and ensuring that they all operate like a tech startup--it’s also his essence as a candidate. In his own words, “I’d like to think of my campaign as fresh, young, energetic, tech-savvy, and it's important that in Congress we have millennial voices, and also just like voices that understand the tech world and the new economy and social media.”

As was mentioned earlier, Rosenberg was one of four speakers on a panel at YU in 2009 on gay people in Orthodox Judaism. The event was organized by JQY, a social and support group for young frum gay Jews, and through the great efforts of its founder Mordechai Levovitz. Reflecting on the event, Rosenberg recalled that YU had to change the event space 3-4 times before they settled on having it in Weissberg Commons in Belfer Hall. Even though hundreds of seats were set up, and the rest of the room was packed with people standing up, there were still hundreds of people standing outside who couldn’t even fit into the room. “It was very fascinating for me, because it showed that even though Rabbis at the time were still very challenged by what to say, by the place of gay people in the community, but there was a very strong desire to hear about this from the students.”

Rosenberg was dismayed that there was a lot of backlash in the days after the event, but in hindsight, that backlash paled in comparison to some of the positives that emerged from the event. For example, Rosenberg recounted that there were rabbis in the crowd who in the weeks after the event, put out divrei Torah and led other campaigns calling for inclusivity for LGBTQ in the Jewish community. Furthermore, around that time, previous organizations were remade into the organization Eshel, which has provided a lot of resources for LGBTQ people, including many shabbatons and other events. Rosenberg believes that there are more people who are remaining observant or somewhat observant than there were before. “People can be gay and have a very positive attitude towards Judaism.”

Rosenberg is also the founder of Or Chayim, a traditional/Orthodox Jewish congregation for LGBTQ people and allies, which he founded after seeing a need and wanting to fill the niche. This niche consisted of people who grew up religious or traditional, or people who just wanted a traditional Shabbos experience, and for a multitude of reasons, wouldn’t feel comfortable in a liberal denomination of Judaism. So though they’re LGBTQ and there might not be a place where they feel comfortable, they want to be Jewish. Or Chayim is allowing people to enjoy Shabbos while being comfortable.

In around two years of existence, with minyan once a month on Friday night, they’ve had over 400 people attend, and they get around 75 people on an average Friday night. Rosenberg explained how he attracts so many people to a niche minyan like Or Chayim; “I learned growing up that the best way to attract people to a minyan is to have cholent and kugel afterwards. So even though its Friday night, ...we have our kiddush hour. And afterwards, for people who are interested, we have a shabbat dinner.”

Rosenberg views this idea of inclusive shabbat experiences as critical to the Jewish future, and it’s something that he has worked on, both with Or Chayim, and as a spokesperson for One Table, a non-profit organization that promotes the practice of shabbat dinner for people in the 20s and 30s. Through this organization, he’s hosted dinners and coached others on how to host dinner themselves.

“Judaism has a very innovative spirit; the concept that ten people can create their own minyan.” Rosenberg cited the fact that communities around the country will often have shuls that split and new minyanim form as proof of this innovation. “People don’t like the cholent at one minyan, so they start their own minyan.” Rosenberg felt that at this point in his life, starting his own minyan was the best way for him to be able to maintain his Jewish observance, and he has helped countless others do the same.

As a candidate for political office, Rosenberg also took the time to articulate his positions on various issues. “One of the reasons why I’m running is that tens of millions of Americans--on both sides of the aisle--feel that the American system is completely broken.” That we have a broken system shouldn’t come as a surprise given Congress’ abysmally low approval rating. Rosenberg explained that historically, Congress wasn’t nearly this partisan. For example, in the 80s, Democrats worked with the Republican president at the time, President Reagan.

In the aforementioned panel, Rosenberg mentioned in passing that he identified as a Republican. Today, he attributes this to having grown up in a household that was politically and religiously conservative. Shortly after the panel, and as part of a larger soul searching, Rosenberg realized that the Democratic Party fit his ideals far more. Rosenberg explained that this wasn’t only because of his coming out as gay at that time, but also through his work with renewable energy and healthcare--policy areas that Democrats either emphasize more, or hold positions that align more closely with his.

Rosenberg believes in fiscal responsibility. He explained his concerns with where the country is headed economically, and cautioned that even though the unemployment is going down and the economy is growing, on a real rate, wages aren’t growing so it’s more difficult for people to afford necessities, even if they are employed. He views small businesses as imperative to the country’s economic growth, and remarked that as a Democrat who believes in small businesses as the engine of growth for this country, he believes that “All people should have access to the opportunities to create their own small businesses.” We’re living in a time where people, specifically minorities, still have trouble securing the necessary funding for their small businesses, and this is something that Rosenberg wants to change.

To say that Israel is a policy issue that is dear to Rosenberg’s heart might be an understatement. “I’ve been to Israel like fifteen times, I studied there for a year, I interned there for a summer in college. One of the reasons I’m running is because of this disastrous nuclear deal with Iran last year.” Rosenberg sees the issue of Iran as one that encapsulates his policies in multiple areas--as someone who is both staunchly pro-Israel and an advocate for gay rights, of which Iran is an egregious violator.

He mentioned how with Or Chayim, he’s organized support for Israel, all the more impressive given that many synagogues and organizations in the LGBTQ community aren’t as vocal in support of Israel, or are even vocal against Israel. Rosenberg and eighteen other community leaders published a letter last year to Congressman Nadler expressing their disdain for the Iran deal and urging him to vote against it.

Rosenberg is taking on a sitting congressman, Jerry Nadler in the democratic primary. Rather than view this as insurmountable, Rosenberg is actually energized by this challenge and feels that it is important for citizens of his district--which includes various parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn--that he is in the race and challenges Nadler. Nadler hasn’t been challenged in 20 years, and without a primary, there isn’t democracy. Because congress’ approval rating is so low, there are a lot of people who want change. This actually pressures the incumbent to campaign for people’s vote.

Looking back on his time at YU, Rosenberg remarked that “I still really believe in YU’s cause of Torah u’Maddah.” Furthermore, he credits President Richard Joel with having had a great effect on him. “Richard Joel was a very inspirational was his first few years, and he had a very broad vision about impacting America with Jewish values and I think that that still carries a little bit forward with me.”

One of the themes of this election season has been the political outsider and the success that many such outsiders have been having. Donald Trump--who has never held political office before, yet is winning the Republican primary--is the premier example of this phenomena. I asked Rosenberg if he felt like an outsider, and if this is something that could help his campaign. He responded that he “is an outsider that also has experience.” He cited his experience analyzing energy and healthcare projects, working in the banking sector, and the fact that he’s been learning and talking about Israel for much of life, as proof of this.

As students, we talk about, research, and then ultimately live out different career paths. The path that Oliver Rosenberg has been fascinating and impressive, and depending on how he fares in the upcoming June primary, could be even more impressive. But even more impressive than Rosenberg’s specific list of achievements is the synthesis he has in all that he does. For example, his policy positions as a candidate draw upon experiences he had in his professional career and on his personal life; his campaign draws upon his experience in the tech world; his leadership role with Or Chayim draws upon experiences and changes in his personal life. This synthesis reflects on how much Rosenberg has done in his life already, but also that he’s primed to do so much more in the future.