I’m a local teacher in Woodstock, a former U.S. diplomat who served with distinction in Iraq, and my family has had a farm in the Hudson Valley since I was a boy.
I am the grandson of four Holocaust survivors who came to America as refugees from Europe in the 1950s in pursuit of the American dream. They worked in factories and sweatshops in New York City and found the refuge they dreamt of here in our district in the Hudson Valley and the Catskills. They rented bungalows throughout Sullivan County every summer, and it was there that they and my parents spent some of the best times of their lives. My grandfathers commuted back and forth to work in the city in an era when one salary could support a whole family.
My father spent years in his youth waiting tables in Ellenville in Ulster County at the old Catskills resorts along Briggs Highway before graduating Queens College and going on to medical school in Valhalla. I was born in Manhattan while he was in his residency there, and we lived in Queens as he continued his training and my mom taught math in New York’s public schools. We moved around Westchester as he built his practice, and I attended schools in Tuckahoe and White Plains before graduating in 1994 from Scarsdale High School.
When I was nine years old, my father and uncle made my grandparents’ Hudson Valley dream a permanent part of our lives. They joined together to build our family farm in Putnam County, naming it Willow Ridge Farm for the Weeping Willow trees that line the streams. We built up the farm throughout my life, clearing 32 acres of pasture where we have raised horses and livestock, everything from Boer goats to Angus cattle and Heritage turkeys. It was there that my brothers and I learned to work with animals and work the land, and grew to love the place just as my grandparents did. We stored hay in the winter, built and repaired fences for our pastures, and struggled to keep our first tractor running, a ‘61 Ford. Like many small family farms that are not self-sufficient off of agriculture alone, we also host events. As we are all working in other places and pursuits right now, we are not raising livestock at this moment. We remain active in advocating small farms in the Hudson Valley as members of the Farm Bureau.
Drawn to public service from a young age, I graduated with honors from Harvard University with a BA in Government and a Master’s Degree in Middle Eastern Studies in 1998. I began my career as an intelligence officer with the CIA in 1997 as a graduate fellow. I continued that work full-time after graduating. My work included writing for President Clinton’s daily brief, as well as briefing the secretary of state, members of Congress and ambassadors in the Middle East. I rose from that job to play a more direct role in policymaking after taking and passing the U.S. State Department’s foreign service exam. I was commissioned as a Foreign Service Officer in 2002 and pushed for peace in the West Bank and Gaza Strip alongside my close friend Ambassador Chris Stevens, whom we lost in Benghazi.
A year into the Iraq War, I was asked to go to Baghdad to help our country find a path out of the spiraling conflict. I answered that call and became one of the longest serving U.S. diplomats of the Iraq War. Fluent in Arabic, I faced down insurgents to set up the first diplomatic talks between our ambassador, our generals and the insurgency. I helped bring warring factions together to create a constitution for Iraq and was decorated by both the U.S. Army and the State Department.
I left Iraq in 2006 to pursue a PhD in History at Columbia University. I was called back to the war in June 2007 by the National Security Council to help push for diplomatic progress to complement any room opened by the troop surge. I accepted that call and returned to work as a diplomat with Ambassador Ryan Crocker. I was called back to Iraq a final time, in 2008, on a commission to review the American presence in Iraq with General Anthony Zinni, a prominent critic of the war. Following that work, I decided not to return to academia or Iraq.
After my service overseas I was disillusioned about the course our country was taking in the Middle East, concerned about raising a family in the region, and determined to find a way to make a concrete difference here at home. I turned down a lucrative job offer from ExxonMobil because of my opposition to the fossil fuel industry. I returned instead to my family’s farm here in the Hudson Valley to raise my family. My wife and I were married on the banks of the pond on our farm. I began writing a book on the Iraq War and America’s engagement in the Middle East. It was picked up by an agent, but rather than complete it at the time, I turned to a larger project working with my brother, an award-winning cinematographer, to write and direct a documentary and feature film about our country. For three years I lived in Brooklyn and Queens near my brother as we worked to write a script, rally collaborators and bring this project to life.
I returned to the Hudson Valley permanently in 2011 to settle, work and raise my family. My brother and I organized a cast of over one hundred actors and volunteers from across the Hudson Valley and shot the film, The Hard Candy Kid, a film that exposes the commercialization of childhood in America and the dominance of big business in the candy industry and throughout our history. It is now in submission to festivals across the country and represents a collaboration with actors and artists across our home, including a personal heroine of mine, the comedian Julie Novak of Rosendale. I also began raising Bourbon Red Heritage turkeys, explored providing translation and research on the Middle East, and took up teaching. I found a calling in the classroom and in 2016 became a full-time teacher in Woodstock Day School along with my wife, Suhayr, who teaches kindergarten. Our two sons, Abraham and Joseph, attend with us, and the whole family goes to school together.
I taught a civics class on the 2016 election and voted against John Faso with the expectation that a man so transparently corrupt and unfit for office would never be elected. When he was elected and began to cast votes in Congress to strip our community of our health care and pollute our environment, I rallied with activists around our district to make a change. I held the first “Swing Left” meeting in our district, in Woodstock, was soon voted onto the Woodstock Democratic Committee, and led a class trip to Washington, DC for the inauguration and Women’s March.
This past June, with the support of my friends, community, and school, I launched a grassroots campaign for progressive change here in our home. We kicked off our campaign outside the historic Ulster County Courthouse in Kingston with over one hundred activists from counties across the district. We have gone on to rally citizens at gatherings and #UniteNY19 forums across the district, sign up hundreds of volunteers, and inspire contributions from all eleven counties in our district.
We are only just beginning. I plan to use my knowledge of our community and my experience bringing opposing sides together to lead a united coalition of new voices in Congress. Together we will face down the corporate powers and lobbyists rigging our economy against working people. Together we will pass a progressive economic agenda that creates jobs, raises wages, protects the environment and provides Medicare for all.
I used to believe democracy was something we fight for overseas. Today, I believe we have to fight for our democracy here at home. We’re uniting for that fight now. I hope you’ll join us.