Who the Folk?! Ethan Roberts

Welcome to “Who the Folk?!” Every week on Monday we feature a new member of our Jewish community. Know someone we should feature? Nominate them by sending an email to [email protected].

Last week we got to know Jon Savitt. This week meet Ethan Roberts!

(3) Ethan RobertsTC Jewfolk: Are you from the Twin Cities?

Ethan: No, I’m from the Boston suburbs. I attended Macalester College from 1992-1996, then spent eleven years not in Minnesota. I worked for four years as a paralegal in NYC, then lived in California for seven years where I went to law school and practiced law for another four years. We finally came back to Minnesota in 2007.

TCJ: It sounds like you had dreams of being a lawyer for a while.

Ethan: I did. It’s funny, because a lot of people who end up becoming lawyers and not liking it, which was my case, maybe have an excuse. You know, maybe they didn’t really know what they were getting themselves into, or something. I don’t really have that excuse. I was a paralegal for four years, in New York City, at a very large law firm, and I still went to law school!

TCJ: What didn’t you like about it?

Ethan: Well, I liked law school quite a bit. I really enjoyed our [Ethan and wife Naomi’s] time in the Bay Area. I loved going to school at Stanford. I found law school to be really interesting and we became friends with terrific people. Practicing law was different. I came to this realization that people need at least one of two things to be happy in a career. You need to enjoy the craft of what you do; and you should care, the work should be meaningful to you. If one of those things are in place, you’ll probably be OK. If neither of those things are in place, then the highlight of your day will probably be lunch, and if the highlight of your day is lunch, you need a new job. What I was doing was certainly not evil or immoral work; but I didn’t enjoy the craft, and it didn’t really move me.

TCJ: And you feel like you’ve found that here?

Ethan: Yeah. I love the craft of being a lobbyist. It’s a lot of schmoozing. It’s all about relationships. It’s knowing people, and having people trust you because you have good information and you tell the truth about it. Plus, I get to do that on behalf of the Jewish community, on behalf of organizations like Sholom, or JFCS, or JFS, which do amazing work. I don’t know if I help people, but I know that I help the people who do help people. I think that’s really important in terms of filling that second prong of job happiness, which is “mission.” I’m very committed to the mission.

TCJ: How exactly did that transition happen? From being a lawyer in California to a lobbyist in Minnesota?

Ethan: I have to give a lot of credit to Steve Hunegs, the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), and the hiring committee, because they took a real chance on me. I was definitely looking to move to Minnesota, because this is where my wife’s family is from, and I knew that my brother Benjamin was planning on moving back to Minnesota to open up the cheese shop at France 44. So I knew that we would have family here, which was important. But I was, on paper, completely unqualified for the job I have. They were looking for somebody who had experience as a lobbyist–I didn’t have that. They were looking for somebody who had experience in Minnesota politics–didn’t have that. They also wanted someone with experience working with social service providers. Not only did I not have that, I’m sure I didn’t even appreciate the difference between Medicare and Medicaid before I started preparing for the interview. Clearly Steve and the hiring committee saw something in me that made them feel that, despite not having those qualifications, I would do OK at the job. And every day I leave, I go home, I come back, they haven’t fired me; so things seem to be working out alright.

TCJ: What exactly do you do with the JCRC?

Ethan: I am the Director of The Twin Cities Jewish Community Government Affairs Program, which is an initiative of the local federations and the JCRC. A lot of the work I’ve done over the years is to execute the priorities of the community, at the legislature, and through politics. For example, one of the priorities of the community is Israel. So if there’s, say, an effort at the legislature to divest the state’s pension funds from Israel bonds, that’s something the community cares about, and something I would try to help to defeat. But much of my job involves about protecting $27 million every year in federal, state, and local dollars that gets allocated to the Jewish community’s social service providers and schools. Largely in the areas of older adult services, as well as services for people living with disabilities. Many of those decisions for how the money gets spent are actually made here in Minnesota. So I spend much of my time, especially now, at the State Capitol, trying to ensure that our community has the resources it needs to provide these services to vulnerable populations within and beyond our Jewish community.

TCJ: We’re also really excited that the JCRC is bringing back journalist Jeffrey Goldberg for your annual fundraiser next month.

Ethan: So are we! Last year, people really enjoyed his talk, and even if people didn’t agree with him, I think everyone respected the fact that here was a guy who had deep knowledge, and has exhibited a lot of bravery throughout his career. This is someone who, as he would say, “Before Danny [Pearl],” would meet in remote Afghanistan or Pakistan with leaders of the Taliban and listen to them rant about how awful Jews are. Last year, his focus was largely on the Middle East and the situation there. This year he is going to be mainly addressing the question he raised in The Atlantic magazine back in April entitled, “Is It Time For The Jews To Leave Europe?” Goldberg spent a year researching the story, traveling to at least ten European countries, including France where he just happened to be during the Charlie Hebdo and Jewish supermarket attacks. For a journalist, Goldberg is pretty funny, but he’s certainly not a comedian. So we’re not promising people that it’s going to be a raucously fun time–but it’s going to make you think. I think people will enjoy coming and will learn a lot.

TCJ: You’ve mentioned your family a few times already. How did you meet your wife? And how did family come to play such an important role in your decision-making?

Ethan: Naomi and I met on the second day of orientation at Macalester. We started dating, like, a week later and we’ve been together ever since. She’s the best person that I know. She’s extremely patient, especially with me. Naomi’s a terrific mother, and she’s a really gifted teacher. She’s just an amazing person, and I’m really fortunate she still puts up with me. Naomi also has a great family, and it’s so nice to be in Minnesota and be able to spend so much time with her family, as well as my brother and cousin, who live here as well.

TCJ: Do you have kids?

Ethan: Yes, two. And they’re awesome! Elsie just turned six, and she’s hilarious. TOTALLY adorable. I know most six-year-olds are cute, but Elsie just has a way about her that is very funny–she’s a pleaser. And Noah is a great kid. He’s so mature–he’ll be ten in August. I remember seeing Walter Mondale in 1984 when I was ten, and it was very impactful. So I’ll sometimes take my kids to the Capitol so that they can experience things, like everything about the fight for marriage equality, for example. I think that’s great–I get to share my work with my kids. And what’s great about my work is that it’s so family friendly. I get to have dinner with my kids most nights. I get to be an assistant soccer coach. I get to be present in their lives. Not all jobs, unfortunately, allow for that.

TCJ: What’s your favorite way to celebrate Shabbat?

Ethan: Actually, my family loves Havdallah. They love the songs, the prayers, the braided candle, even a bit of the wine. What’s nice is when the kids ask. They’re like, “Oh, can we do Havdalah?” And we try to do it every week. I mean, how do you say no to that?

TCJ: What’s your favorite Jewish food?

Ethan: I’ve never said no to lox and eggs. Probably never said no to anything with lox. I just have a thing for that salty fish.

TCJ: Finally, give us one more reason why you’re folking awesome! 

Ethan: Two years ago around this time, close to midnight, it became clear that a half-million dollar appropriation for an outstanding JFCS program, which is helping close the achievement gap was really in jeopardy. The money had just disappeared somehow. And one of the key decision makers (and a friend of mine) had left the room that you can’t go into as a lobbyist to use the bathroom. And yeah… I followed him. We did the walk-and-talk on the way to the bathroom and back. And it worked! So I think it’s pretty awesome that I saved half a million dollars for the Parent-Child Home Program by essentially stalking a legislator.

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