- Avi Berkowitz/Twitter
Avi Berkowitz was an undergrad at Queens College when he met Jared Kushner during a game of pick-up basketball at a Passover celebration in Phoenix, Arizona.
Kushner, then a young real-estate mogul from New Jersey, took a liking to Berkowitz, who, like Kushner, was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home in the New York City suburbs.
At the time, neither could have predicted that a few years later, Kushner, now a senior adviser to his father-in-law, President Donald Trump, would be one of the most powerful people in the country and Berkowitz his right-hand man.
Berkowitz, 28, is in many ways Kushner’s protégé, following him to Kushner Companies, then to Trump’s campaign, and now to the West Wing. Both Ivy League-educated lawyers, they have matching dispositions and similar worldviews influenced by their Jewish schooling and deep ties to Israel, according to several of Berkowitz’s friends who spoke with Business Insider. Berkowitz reflects a larger trend in a White House staffed by friends and family of a president who prizes loyalty and de-prioritizes political experience.
Through a White House representative, Berkowitz declined to be interviewed for this story.
The Road to the White House
Berkowitz was not known for harboring particularly strong political beliefs before he joined Trump’s campaign. A friend of Berkowitz’s who met him in Israel and later roomed with him at Harvard Law School told Business Insider that the two rarely had explicitly political discussions.
“I’m not sure how much mindfulness I paid to his political stances,” said the former roommate, who requested anonymity because of the political nature of Berkowitz’s new role. “I’m sure we did have conversations that would expose me to his views on political issues, and I just never sort of formulated or thought about his overall political views.”
Berkowitz didn’t join any of the law school’s conservative student organizations or journals. Instead, he spent his free time working as a teaching assistant in several undergraduate government classes, including, notably, the Road to the White House.
But during Berkowitz’s second year at Harvard, the law school became embroiled in politically charged controversy. Tensions came to a head after the school woke up on a November morning in 2015 to find slivers of black tape over the framed portraits of every black tenured law professor.
Student activists, largely minorities, began a monthslong occupation of the law school’s student center in February 2016, demanding, among other things, the school replace its shield, which depicted the coat of arms of Isaac Royall Jr., a slave owner and early Harvard benefactor. The law school retired its shield in March 2016.
— Steve Annear (@steveannear) January 26, 2016
In the spring of 2016, around the time Kushner asked Berkowitz to join Trump’s campaign, Berkowitz began writing about campus issues for the New York Observer, the weekly newspaper Kushner bought in 2006.
Berkowitz didn’t take a strong position on the vandalism or the removal of the school shield, but he suggested in an op-ed that labeling the black-tape incident a hate crime, as many did, was an overreaction – a testament to the left’s exaggerated political correctness. He also accused liberal student activists of stifling dissent, censoring conservatives on campus.
Berkowitz’s opinions surprised some who knew him, including Colin Ross, a Harvard classmate who told Business Insider that Berkowitz’s writing, and his decision to join Trump’s campaign, came “kind of out of nowhere.”
Ross said that while it was difficult to avoid developing opinions about campus politics, the majority of students attempted to stay out of what was often a contentious debate.
“I think both sides had the impression that they were kind of under fire,” he said. “There was no one who was casually speaking out on those things.”
But Jonathan Gartner, a former president of the Jewish Law Students Association, said he didn’t think of Berkowitz as ideological.
“He was pragmatic about what his political views were,” Gartner told Business Insider. “He was the type of person who was able to see other people’s sides, who was able to have a thought-out discussion.”
Like Kushner, who is known for his calm, understated demeanor in a volatile and often impolite political climate, Berkowitz isn’t easily provoked.
“He’s the definition of calm, cool, and collected,” Rabbi Johnny Ouzzan, who lived and studied with Berkowitz at a religious school in Israel, told Business Insider. “He doesn’t really express frustration, even if he has reason to.”
Religion and politics
While he’s an outspoken free-speech advocate when the speech fits his politics, Berkowitz was quick to condemn that which offended him personally, including when a fellow law student asked Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli foreign minister, why she was “so smelly” at a Harvard-sponsored discussion on Israeli-Palestinian relations in April 2016.
In an open letter, leaders of the Jewish Law Students Association called the question blatantly anti-Semitic.”
The student apologized, claiming his goal was to call attention to Livni’s complicity in alleged war crimes against Palestinians. He said he did not realize the word “smelly” had anti-Semitic connotations.
Berkowitz responded in an Observer op-ed, saying that “recent anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses has emboldened students to conflate protest with hate speech.”
In July, Kushner wrote his own Observer op-ed concerning allegations of anti-Semitism. This time, it was Trump who was being accused of promoting anti-Jewish sentiment after he tweeted an image of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, surrounded by cash and a six-sided star emblazoned with “most corrupt candidate ever!”
Trump’s son-in-law defended him against what he characterized as an overreaction by the “speech police.” He said Trump’s staunch support of Israel disproved the claim that he was anti-Semitic.
“If even the slightest infraction against what the speech police have deemed correct speech is instantly shouted down with taunts of ‘racist’ then what is left to condemn the actual racists?” Kushner wrote.
— Avi Berkowitz (@AviBerkow) June 9, 2016
Berkowitz and Kushner have similar approaches to Israel. Both men have deep ties to the country.
Kushner’s family has donated millions of dollars to Israeli institutions, including schools and hospitals, some located in settlements, and has a longstanding relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Growing up, Kushner attended Jewish schools and was taught to “protect Israel, remember the genocide, and assure the survival of the Jewish people,” The New York Times reported recently. The report cited people close to him who said Kushner’s Judaism and support of Israel were inextricably intertwined.
While Kushner’s political stances are often not well understood, his approach to Israel has remained consistent and central to his politics. He is widely credited with shaping Trump’s policy toward Israel, and the president has assigned him the monumental task of brokering peace between Israel and Palestine.
Israel and Judaism have played similarly central roles in Berkowitz’s life. His family is also tied to powerful Jewish leaders. Berkowitz’s cousin, Howard Friedman, was the first Orthodox president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most influential pro-Israel lobbying group in the US.
Growing up in Lawrence, Long Island, an affluent, largely Jewish town 45 minutes from Manhattan, Berkowitz was educated at a local Orthodox day school. After high school, he spent two years studying religious texts at Yeshiva Kol Torah in Jerusalem, a prestigious Israeli Orthodox seminary. Berkowitz came back to the US in 2009 to attend Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, where he started his undergrad studies before transferring to Queens College.
In Israel, Berkowitz was taught to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in religious terms, a worldview that Ouzzan said “definitely” informed Berkowitz’s politics.
Of the West Bank and other Palestinian territories, Ouzzan said, “These are lands that religious Jews believe were part of the whole of Israel that was given to the Jewish people, starting with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob going back to the times of the Bible.
“There’s a lot of emotional connection that we as a people feel for those lands,” he added.
For many American Orthodox Jews, US policy toward Israel heavily influences their political allegiances. Ouzzan said many in the Orthodox community turned to Trump for relief from years of tense relations between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu.
“Many people just didn’t feel like Obama had Israel’s back,” Ouzzan said. “The way he put demands on Israel, the Iran deal, the request to cease settlement construction.”
- Avi Berkwitz/Facebook
From ‘Trump Tower Live’ to the White House
After graduating from law school in June, Berkowitz put his legal career on hold again – this time deferring an offer for an associate position at a white-shoe law firm – after Kushner asked him to join the campaign full-time.
As the campaign’s assistant director of data analytics, Berkowitz ran “Trump Tower Live,” the campaign’s pre- and post-presidential-debate talk show that became a nightly Facebook Live discussion in the weeks leading up to the election.
The broadcast was a low-tech production in the style of a cable news talk show, featuring campaign aides and Trump surrogates discussing the issues of the day. Like Trump’s Twitter account, the live show was designed to bring the campaign’s talking points straight to voters, “bypassing the left-wing media,” Boris Epshteyn, a cohost and former Trump aide, told viewers.
According to Berkowitz, the show was meant to reach a younger demographic that consumes news almost entirely on social media and nonlegacy news sites.
“Younger people don’t watch CNN. They just don’t,” Berkowitz told The Times in October. “This is how they get information. This is the best way to bring it to them. And we’re happy to do that.”
Berkowitz worked closely with Right Side Broadcasting Network, a conservative media startup that helped him with the logistics of livestreaming Trump rallies and, after the election, Trump’s “thank you” tour events.
— RSBN TV (@RSBNetwork) November 28, 2016
Officially a special assistant to the president and assistant to the senior adviser, Berkowitz is Kushner’s right-hand man in the White House. Hope Hicks, a White House spokeswoman, told Business Insider that Berkowitz’s role was primarily administrative and involved assisting Kushner with daily logistics like getting coffee or coordinating meetings.
But Berkowitz has been a part of some of the most high-profile moments of Kushner’s time on the transition team and in the White House. According to a report last week in The Times, Kushner sent Berkowitz to meet with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, in December. Kislyak talked with Berkowitz about arranging a meeting with Sergey Gorkov, the head of a Russian state-owned bank that was under sanctions imposed by the Obama administration. Berkowitz’s meeting and Kushner’s subsequent sit-down with Gorkov had been unreported.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is planning to question Kushner about his communications with Russian officials as part of its broader investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether Trump’s associates had colluded with Russia.
Earlier this year, Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned when it became clear he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak and misrepresented those conversations to Vice President Mike Pence.
In March, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from overseeing Russia-related investigations after reports surfaced that said Sessions met with Kislyak during the campaign – meetings he did not disclose to Congress.
- Avi Berkowitz/Facebook
‘A chance to explore his talents’
While Berkowitz’s friends aren’t surprised by his success, they’re not all supportive of his decision to work for Trump.
Berkowitz’s Harvard roommate said he didn’t have a strong reaction to the news that his friend had joined the campaign. “I wasn’t disappointed. I wasn’t proud,” he said.
Ouzzan, who last saw Berkowitz at a mutual friend’s wedding in Brooklyn before the election, said he was enthusiastic about the opportunity Berkowitz had.
“At that time, no one really thought that Trump had a chance,” Ouzzan said. “A lot of people were like, ‘OK, that’s nice, good luck, Avrahmi.’
“Now that he became president, if that means Avi gets a chance to explore his talents and go somewhere in the administration, for us, as his friends, that’s very exciting.”