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 ...and more »
Avi Berkowitz and Donald
Trump in Trump Tower on Election Day.
Avi Berkowitz was an undergrad atÂ 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 mogulÂ from New Jersey,
took a liking to Berkowitz, who, like Kushner, was raised
inÂ an Orthodox Jewish homeÂ in theÂ New York City
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, wouldÂ be one of the most powerful people in
the country and Berkowitz his right-hand man.
Berkowitz, 28, is in many ways Kushner'sÂ protÃ©gÃ©, following
him to Kushner Companies,Â then to Trump's campaign, and
nowÂ 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 inÂ a White House staffed
by friends and family of aÂ president who prizes loyalty and
deprioritizes political experience.
Through a White House representative, Berkowitz declined to be
interviewedÂ for this story.
The Road to the White House
Berkowitz was not known for harboring particularly strong
political beliefsÂ before he joined Trump's campaign. A
friend of Berkowitz's who met himÂ in Israel and later roomed
with him at Harvard Law School told Business InsiderÂ that
the two rarely had explicitly political discussions.
"I'm not sure how much mindfulness I paid to
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
issues, and I just never sort of formulated or thought
about his overall
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 assistantÂ in
severalÂ undergraduate governmentÂ classes, including,
notably, the Road to the White House.
But during Berkowitz's second yearÂ at Harvard, the law
schoolÂ became embroiled in politically charged controversy.
Tensions came to a headÂ after the school woke up on a
November morning in 2015 to findÂ 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 centerÂ in February
2016, demanding, among other things, the school
replaceÂ itsÂ shield, which depicted the coat of arms
ofÂ Isaac Royall Jr., a slave owner and early Harvard
benefactor.Â The law school retired its shield in March
In the spring ofÂ 2016, around the time Kushner asked
BerkowitzÂ to join Trump's campaign, Berkowitz
beganÂ writing about campus issuesÂ for
theÂ New YorkÂ Observer, the weekly
Kushner bought in 2006.Â
Berkowitz didn't take a strong position on the vandalism or
the removal of the school shield, but he suggested in
an op-edÂ thatÂ labeling the black-tape
incident a hate crime, as many did,Â was an overreaction â€” a
testament to the left's exaggerated political correctness.
Â alsoÂ accused liberal student
activistsÂ of stifling dissent, censoring conservatives on
Berkowitz's opinionsÂ surprised some who knew him,
including Colin Ross, a Harvard classmate whoÂ told Business
Insider that Berkowitz's writing, and his decision to join
cameÂ "kind of out of
Ross saidÂ that while it was difficult to avoid
developing opinionsÂ about campus politics, the majority of
students attempted to stay out of what was often a
"I think both sides had the impression that they were kind of
under fire," heÂ 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
"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
Like Kushner, who is known for his calm,
understatedÂ demeanor inÂ a volatile and often
impoliteÂ political climate, Berkowitz isn't easily
"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
thatÂ which offended him personally, including
whenÂ aÂ fellow law studentÂ asked Tzipi Livni,
the former Israeli foreign minister,Â why she was
smelly"Â at a Harvard-sponsoredÂ discussion on
Israeli-Palestinian relations in April 2016.
open letter,Â leaders of theÂ Jewish Law
calledÂ theÂ questionÂ "blatantly
The studentÂ apologized,
claiming his goalÂ was to call attention
toÂ Livni's complicity in
alleged war crimes against Palestinians. He said he did not
realize the wordÂ "smelly" had anti-Semitic
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 wroteÂ his own
Observer op-edÂ concerning allegationsÂ of
anti-Semitism. This time, it was Trump who was being accused of
promoting anti-Jewish sentiment afterÂ he
tweetedÂ 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 himÂ against what
heÂ characterized as anÂ 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.
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,Â 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.Â The report cited
peopleÂ close to him who saidÂ 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. HeÂ is widelyÂ credited with shaping Trump's
policy toward Israel, and the president has assigned himÂ the
monumental task of brokering peace between Israel
Israel and Judaism have played similarly central roles in
Berkowitz's life. HisÂ familyÂ is alsoÂ tied to
powerful Jewish leaders. Berkowitz'sÂ cousin, Howard
Friedman, was the first OrthodoxÂ 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
JewishÂ townÂ 45 minutesÂ from Manhattan, Berkowitz
was educated at a local Orthodox day school.Â After high
school, heÂ spent two years studying religious texts at
YeshivaÂ Kol Torah in Jerusalem, a prestigious Israeli
Orthodox seminary.Â BerkowitzÂ came back to the US
in 2009 to attendÂ Ner Israel Rabbinical College in
Baltimore,Â where he started his undergrad
studiesÂ before transferring to Queens College.
In Israel, Berkowitz was taught to understandÂ the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict in religious terms,Â a worldview
that Ouzzan said "definitely"Â informed Berkowitz's politics.
Of the West Bank and other Palestinian territories, Ouzzan
said, "These are lands that religious Jews believe wereÂ 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 saidÂ many in
the Orthodox community turned to TrumpÂ 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
IranÂ deal, the request to cease settlement
Berkowitz on the set of
"Trump Tower Live."
From 'Trump Tower Live' to the White HouseÂ
After graduating from law school in June, Berkowitz put his
legal career on hold again â€” this time deferring an offer for an
associate position at a white-shoe law firm â€” afterÂ Kushner
asked him to join the campaign full-time.
AsÂ the campaign's assistant
director of data analytics, Berkowitz ran "Trump
Tower Live," the campaign's pre- and
post-presidential-debateÂ talk show that becameÂ a
nightly Facebook Live discussionÂ in the weeks leading up to
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 showÂ was designed to bring the campaign's
talking points straight to voters, "bypassing the left-wing
media," Boris Epshteyn, aÂ cohost and former Trump
According to Berkowitz,Â the show was meant to reach a
younger demographic thatÂ consumes news almost entirely on
social media and nonlegacy news sites.
"Younger people don't watch CNN. They just don't,"
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
livestreamingÂ Trump rallies and, after the election, Trump's
"thank you" tour events.
OfficiallyÂ a special assistant to the president and
assistant to the senior adviser, BerkowitzÂ is Kushner's
right-hand man in the White House. Hope Hicks, a White House
spokeswoman, told Business Insider that Berkowitz's role was
primarilyÂ administrative and involved assisting Kushner with
daily logistics like getting coffee or coordinating
But Berkowitz has been a part of some of the most
high-profileÂ moments of Kushner's time on the transition
team and in the White House. According to a report last week
Times, Kushner sent Berkowitz to
meet with the Russian ambassador,Â Sergey Kislyak,
in December 2016. Kislyak talked withÂ Berkowitz
aboutÂ arranging a meetingÂ withÂ Sergey
Gorkov, the head of a state-ownedÂ bank that wasÂ under
sanctions imposed byÂ the Obama administration. Berkowitz's
meeting and Kushner's subsequent sit-down with Gorkov
wereÂ previously unreported.Â
The Senate Intelligence Committee
is planning to question Kushner about his communications with
Russian officials as part of its broader investigation
intoÂ Russian interference in the 2016Â election.
Earlier this year, Trump's former national security
adviser,Â Michael Flynn,Â resignedÂ when
it became clear he had discussed sanctions
withÂ KislyakÂ and misrepresented those
conversationsÂ toÂ Vice President Mike Pence. In March,
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself
fromÂ overseeing Russia-related
investigationsÂ followingÂ reports that Sessions
metÂ withÂ Kislyak during
theÂ campaign â€” meetings he did not disclose to
Berkowitz with Michael
Flynn, Trump's first national security
'A chance to explore his talents'
While Berkowitz's friends aren't surprised by his success,
they're not all supportive of his decisionÂ to work for
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," heÂ said.Â
Ouzzan, who last saw Berkowitz at a mutual friend's
weddingÂ in Brooklyn before the election last fall, is
enthusiastic about the opportunity Berkowitz has.Â
"At that time no one really thought that Trump had a
chanceÂ ... a lot of people were like, 'OK, that's nice, good
luck, Avrahmi,'" Ouzzan said.
He added: "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
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