By Uriel Heilman
NEW YORK (JTA) – Jared Kushner has many claims to fame.
He’s married to Ivanka Trump, daughter of the Republican presidential front-runner. He’s the scion of a philanthropy-minded Jewish family from New Jersey that is one of the biggest names in New York real estate. He’s the owner and publisher of a storied weekly, the New York Observer. But Kushner’s celebrity may be taking a quantum leap now that he’s becoming more involved in his father-in-law’s White House bid.
Kushner, 35, is no mere footnote to the Donald Trump campaign. He played a key role writing the pro-Israel speech that Trump delivered last month to the AIPAC annual policy conference. Kushner helped plan a trip to Israel for Trump last December, which the candidate abruptly canceled after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed Trump’s proposal to block Muslims from immigrating to the United States.
“This was all your idea!” Trump reportedly scolded his son-in-law, according to a source quoted in a New York Magazine story that appeared April 3. (The Trump campaign told JTA the story was false.) More often, Trump is pleased with Kushner. He often refers to his “fantastic” son-in-law when touting his pro-Israel bona fides.
Kushner’s name may carry as much renown in Jewish circles as it does in the world of real estate, where he has helped grow his family’s extensive fortune. The family foundation named for his parents, the Seryl and Charles Kushner Family Foundation, gives away more than $2 million a year, and a significant chunk goes to Jewish causes. An Orthodox Jewish elementary school and high school in Livingston, New Jersey are both named for Jared’s Holocaust survivor grandparents.
The family foundation distributed about $2.4 million in 2011, $3.9 million in 2012 and $2.4 million in 2013, the latest year for which data is publicly available. Kushner, who is involved in the foundation, also briefly served as a board member for this news organization (JTA, now under the umbrella of 70 Faces Media, is a not-for-profit). He attended high school at the Frisch School, a modern Orthodox yeshiva in Paramus, New Jersey. He later went to Harvard and earned his law degree at New York University.
One of four siblings, Kushner now lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, belongs to the Orthodox Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue and is Sabbath observant. His wife underwent an Orthodox conversion to Judaism before the couple wed in October 2009, studying Judaism with Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Kehilath Jeshurun and the Ramaz School. Ivanka Trump told Vogue magazine last year that the family keeps kosher and Shabbat. Kushner noted that his wife often whips up Shabbat dinner.
“She said, ‘If we’re going to do Shabbos, I’m going to cook.’ She never cooked before in her life and became a great cook,” Kushner told Vogue. “So for Friday, she’ll make dinner for just the two of us, and we turn our phones off for 25 hours.”
Ivanka Trump said of her conversion to Judaism, “It’s been such a great life decision for me. I am very modern, but I’m also a very traditional person, and I think that’s an interesting juxtaposition in how I was raised as well. I really find that with Judaism, it creates an amazing blueprint for family connectivity.”
The couple just had their third child, a boy, Theodore James Kushner, adding to a family that already included Arabella Rose, 4, and Joseph Frederick, 2.
Kushner recently ended up in some hot water when New York Magazine reported that Observer editor Ken Kurson read and provided input on Trump’s AIPAC speech. Although Kurson suggested his “input” amounted to reading a draft of the speech and discussing it with Kushner, the Observer’s senior political editor, Jillian Jorgensen, said that would not happen again. “Going forward, there will be no input whatsoever on the campaign from Mr. Kurson or anyone on the editorial side of the Observer,” Jorgensen said.
Kushner’s family weathered a public scandal in 2004 when his father, Charles, was arrested on charges of tax evasion, illegal campaign donations and witness tampering. Among other things, Charles Kushner had hired a prostitute to lure his brother-in-law into a tryst that the elder Kushner secretly had taped and mailed to his sister. The setup, part of a long-running family feud, sent Charles Kushner to jail for 16 months. Jared Kushner, who is said to be fiercely devoted to his father, did not shy away from the spotlight. A student at the time in NYU’s MBA-law program, Kushner accelerated his involvement in his father’s real estate empire, Kushner Companies.
In 2006, when he was just 25, Kushner bought the Observer for about $10 million. In 2007, he bought a 41-story office building on Fifth Avenue for $1.8 billion – the most expensive office building sale in U.S. history up to that point. In 2008, Kushner became CEO of his father’s company.
By all accounts, Kushner is a savvy real estate man. In 2014, Kushner Companies completed more than $2 billion in transactions, including buying 2,000 multifamily apartments on the East Coast, according to Fortune magazine. In 2015, Kushner scored spot No. 25 on Fortune’s “40 under 40” list ranking the most influential young people in business.
Now that Kushner’s father-in-law is running for president as a Republican, Kushner has had to switch his political allegiances. Until very recently, he mostly supported Democrats. Kushner’s Observer endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008. He has made more than $100,000 in donations to Democratic committees and candidates, according to widely cited Federal Election Commission records, including a total of $6,000 in donations to Hillary Clinton in 2000 and 2003. Kushner sent $10,000 to the New Jersey Democratic State Committee and $10,000 to the New York State Democratic Committee in 2014, and $20,800 to Cory Booker’s 2013 U.S. Senate campaign in New Jersey. He also made contributions to two other Democratic senators, Charles Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
CAP: Jared Kushner with wife, Ivanka Trump and father-in-law, Donald Trump.