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(Legal) Defender of the Faith

Nathan Lewin ’57YC

The tradition of Jews practicing law is a rich and timeless one that dates back to well before Nathan Lewin, Esq. ’57YC was even born. Yet few American Orthodox Jewish attorneys have made their mark on the practice of law and the Jewish community quite like Lewin. During a prestigious career spanning several decades, he has argued hundreds of cases including many before the Supreme Court; fought for countless causes for the Jewish community; represented a diverse group of defendants ranging from Richard Nixon to John Lennon to the Lubavitcher Rebbe; and taught constitutional law at leading law schools such as Harvard, the University of Chicago and Columbia.

Many of Lewin’s well-publicized cases involved fighting against discrimination in religious issues, such as arguing for the right of on-duty military personnel to wear yarmulkes, and defending the placement of a menorah in front of a city hall building.

That commitment to combating religious intolerance is a mission that is perhaps rooted in his own experiences facing discrimination as a young law student and graduate. It is a mission further exemplified by Lewin’s dedication to the Jewish community and his service to several Jewish organizations in the greater Washington, D.C. area, where he resides with his wife, Rikki ’55YUHS, and is still engaged in the full-time practice of law with his daughter, Alyza.

EARLY LIFE

As a child in Poland, Lewin and his family fled from the Nazis and were among the first to receive the Sugihara transit visas from Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, allowing them to flee to Japan. He and his father then traveled from Kobe, Japan, to California. His mother temporarily stayed behind in Japan, attempting to obtain visas for her own mother and brother—to no avail. Eventually she joined her family in New York, where they all settled on the Upper West Side. Lewin attended Ramaz elementary school and Talmudical Academy (now the Yeshiva University High School for Boys) in Washington Heights. His father became a professor at Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and Hebrew principal at Yeshiva University High School for Girls in Brooklyn and then in Manhattan.

After attending the Talmudical Academy, Lewin enrolled in Yeshiva College (YC), where he majored in English literature. “One of my toughest classes was taught by Herman Wouk,” recalled Lewin. “He assigned a lot of reading and writing each class, but I credit him and Professor David Fleisher for teaching me how to write very well.”

Lewin also devoted time to his Torah studies and a variety of extracurricular activities, serving as president of his freshman and then sophomore classes, and secretary-treasurer of the student council. He also co-wrote the book for the first YC varsity show, a musical titled Choose to Run, which played at an off-Broadway theatre for three nights, all before sold-out audiences. “The musical is a political spoof of Richard Nixon, who was then vice president—and who my friends and I were already suspicious of—and what would happen if he became president of the United States,” explained Lewin with a laugh. Lewin declined to tell Nixon of this play when, years later, he represented him before the Supreme Court following Nixon’s resignation from public office.

At YC, Lewin planned to attend law school, though when asked why by his peers, he would shrug and say, “It sounds like something reasonable to do for a living.” Lewin also said that he had no tangible ideas as to what a lawyer actually did, but as his father had obtained a law degree in Poland (though he never practiced), Lewin decided to follow in his footsteps. He aced the LSATs and was offered scholarships at Yale and Harvard law schools.

HARVARD AND BEYOND

As a Harvard Law first-year student, Lewin experienced his first brush with religious discrimination. “Harvard held classes on Saturdays then, and there was one class that I had to take my freshman year. Along with two other observant students, we went to an early morning minyan at Hillel, and then walked over to class together, where we sat in the rear with no books and no notes,” he recalled. Lewin passed the course with flying colors anyway, much to the befuddlement of his non-Jewish peers.

Applying to internships for the summer following his second year of law school, Lewin was repeatedly turned away by law firms when he disclosed that he was Shomer Shabbos. And when he graduated Harvard, despite being near the top of his class and graduating with high honors, he was repeatedly told by prospective employers that his Shabbos observance hindered him from obtaining a position with them. Nonetheless, Supreme Court Justice John M. Harlan not only accepted him as a law clerk but encouraged his Sabbath observance, as did superiors for whom he later worked at the Department of Justice such as former Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall.

This was prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when it was legal not to hire someone because of his or her race or religion. In 1972, Lewin wrote an amendment to that act, defining religion as including religious practice—thereby including the necessity of leaving early for Shabbos on Fridays.

A ROLE MODEL TO OTHERS

When speaking to current YU students hoping to become lawyers, Lewin encourages them to major in English, since writing well is a necessity in law school and in practice. He strongly urges soon-to-be-lawyers and those currently working as lawyers to devote time to issues in the Jewish community. “There are always important issues that need the attention of good legal minds,” said Lewin, noting, for example, that San Francisco is currently considering a city-wide ban on circumcision, zoning laws are being invoked to prohibit the construction of synagogues and the permissibility of kosher-food laws, eruvin and mezuzot has been challenged in court. “So many young law students and attorneys enter the worlds of corporate litigation, real estate law and other specialized areas that are very lucrative, and they leave no time for work that is more important to the Jewish community that might not pay as well. It is crucial that they commit their time to such causes, including Israel, and I urge them to keep that in their minds throughout their careers,” he emphasized. It is Nathan Lewin himself who can serve as a shining role model exemplifying that noble mission of service to the Jewish community.

Feeling inspired by Nathan’s story? To read about other fantastic and inspirational YU graduates, visit the alumni Web site and check out the alumni profiles; or, to share your own achievements, submit a Class Note.

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