The Life and Values of Ambassador Alfred Moses.
“Do Righteousness and Justice.” — Genesis 18:19
By David Liss
Judaism can have a positive impact on the bottom line in business and public service.
Some of the most successful Jewish business leaders in Washington, DC do well by doing good.
Ambassador Alfred Moses is an incredible example. He is a longtime partner and senior counsel with Washington D.C.-based law firm Covington and Burling and co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Promontory Financial Group.
Under President Bill Clinton, he served as U.S. Ambassador to Romania and the President’s Special Emissary for the Cyprus conflict. For President Jimmy Carter, Ambassador Moses was the special counsel and lead counsel in the Billygate hearings. He negotiated the exodus to Israel of thousands of Jews from communist Romania. Mr. Moses is also the honorary national president of the American Jewish Committee.
What is the impact of your Jewish identity on your daily life and how does your Jewish identity relate to your career?
Everything I have accomplished in public life, from becoming a partner in a non-Jewish law firm to being counsel to a U.S. President, I didn’t do it despite the fact that I was Jewish, I did it because I am Jewish. I never felt that I was at any kind of a disadvantage because I’m Jewish. Being Jewish has never barred me from accomplishing anything.
In America today, being Jewish is increasingly a matter of choice. Young Jews ask me “Why be Jewish?”
To their question, I answer: Judaism has a 3000-year-old tradition of infusing the spiritual into our everyday lives, not for personal redemption, but to uplift the whole of mankind through adherence to ethical and moral principles, and to preserve a sense of connectedness with a people. This, the essence of our Covenant gives us tools to deal with the disparate and often confusing aspects of modern life.
For me, this meant combining my career as a lawyer in private practice with communal and public service. In all of these endeavors, I have been inspired by the teachings of the Torah and the Talmud that each of us has an obligation to work to make peoples’ lives better.
How has your Jewish identity affected your charitable activities and service to others?
It’s hard to segregate Judaism from the rest of my being. I do totally believe that all human beings are the same, in the sense that we all start out with strengths and frailties. It’s not a zero-sum game that I win and you lose. Society is much better off if we can all win together. So I see my role in life, among other things, is to build general welfare. I try to do all that I’m able to help make the world a better place and to make all the positive contributions to society that I can. That doesn’t just mean giving money. That also means how you deal with people in everyday life. The respect you show to others, your openness to listen and understand, to contribute, emotionally as much as in a material sense.
You could say, the world is so vast, with over 6 billion people, what difference does it make what I do? Well, it makes a difference to me. Will I change the face of the earth? Of course not. Will I change the fate of the 50 people I talk to every day? No. Maybe, just maybe something will be left that will be helpful, that will make a difference in the lives of others.
Your obligation is to deal with other people with respect, to listen, understand, contribute, and to do your best, within your means and abilities, to improve the world around you. There are things that any person can do, both large and small, that can make a real difference and will help people truly in need.
I made a decision to be a major contributor of funds in my lifetime. My decisions are influenced by my sense of community that relates to both my Jewish life and my non-Jewish life. I have made large institutional gifts in this country and in Israel for both Jewish and non-Jewish causes based on where I feel I can have the greatest impact.
I have been a major contributor to the Jewish Day School, The National Gallery of Art, Planned Parenthood in Washington, DC in honor of my late wife Carol, as is the social hall at 6th & I synagogue. I support many college students through scholarships, provide educational funds for Israel’s Ethiopian citizens through an Israeli organization called Atidim, and fund development of the Beit Hatfutsot Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv.
Alfred Moses contributes greatly to improve the lives of Jews and non-Jews alike in the DC area and the world. His generous donations include:
- April 2015, $10 million to fund the addition of a middle school for the Jewish Primary Day School in Northwest DC.
- In 2014, $5 million to the Beit Hatfutsot Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv to build a Great Hall of Synagogues.
- A recent donation of $10 million to add contemporary works of photography to the National Gallery of Art.
What is the most important lesson Judaism has taught you?
My Judaism, stripped of all the mythology, is that the only commandment given to Abraham was that his sons and his household “will do what is right and just.” And that is the whole of Judaism. This idea has been the foundation of my life, my work and my service to others.
As we pray in the words of the Amidah, “Raise up those who have fallen, heal the sick, free those who are in bondage.” In the prayer, we are extolling God to do those things. For me, it’s a command that tells me to act to help the lives of others.
It is true that all of us have the opportunity at one time or another to free the oppressed, to relieve the needy in big ways and small. ln, our prayer we say “matir asurim,” to free the oppressed. That is not an option. It is obligatory. So when people came up to me on the streets in Romania in 1976 and asked for my help, I had no hesitation, it was truly instinctive.
There is a moral code within us all. It is that still small voice from within that speaks to us, that brings about our central goodness. Let’s hope that with the disappearance of community and with the degradation of human rights so prevalent in the world today, that still small voice will speak to us, and we will listen.