Jack Lew
Jack LewIsrael News photo: US Global Leadership

U.S. President Barack Obama has nominated Deputy Secretary of State Jacob (Jack) Lew, a religious Jew, as his new director of a budget that suffers from a budget deficit approaching $1.3 trillion. The appointment must be confirmed by the Senate, which may question Lew whether he can function while observing the Sabbath.

One story making the rounds in the United States is that Lew, when he was director for the Office of Management and Budget for former U.S. President Bill Clinton, refused to answer an urgent phone call from the president on the Sabbath, when using the phone is prohibited except in life-saving situations.

The speakerphone was turned on, and Clinton reportedly said, “I know it is the Sabbath, but this is urgent. G-d would understand.”

Lew later consulted with his rabbi, who told him that the Jewish concept of “pikuach Nefesh,” or saving  lives, is applicable when the president calls urgently and that he can pick up the phone on the Sabbath without violating the Jewish law.

As Clinton's budget director, Lew performed the rare feat of operating three budgets without increasing the national deficit.

"If there was a Hall of Fame for budget directors, then Jack Lew surely would have earned a place for his service in that role under President Clinton, when he helped balance the federal budget after years of deficits," President Obama said.

Lew left the Clinton administration with a record $236 million budget surplus but now inherits a whopping $1 trillion deficit for the first nine months of 2010, and it may reach $1.3 trillion by the end of the year..

The bloated budget and the troubled American economy have contributed to a drop in President Obama’s popularity that has sent Democrats scurrying to fight against a possible loss of the party's Congressional majority in November’s mid-term legislative elections.

Lew’s service as budget director also may place him in a difficult position on the subject of military aid to Israel as well as to Egypt and other Arab countries.

He is a graduate of Harvard University and Georgetown Law Schools and ran the budget for New York University before managing financial branches of Citigroup.

Despite his political and financial skills, he faces an uphill task, according to Republican Senator Judd Gregg. He told NBC, "I find him to be very thoughtful, very smart, very capable. He’s taking on a job, however, where the numbers don’t match up. This country does not have a policy which is going to lead us out of what is a disastrous financial situation.”

Lew was born in New York City to a Polish immigrant father. He began involvement in political life at the age of 12, when he volunteered for Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy’s anti-Vietnam war campaign.