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First Family friend/ former advisor, Susan Sher to speak to JUF’s King David Society

Whether she’s spending time in Chicago or Washington D.C., Susan Sher leads an interesting life.

Susan Sher image

Whether she’s spending time in Chicago or Washington D.C., Susan Sher leads an interesting life. Last week, she attended her friend’s 50th birthday party—and the guest of honor just happened to be the Commander-in-Chief.  

A longtime member of the Obamas’ Chicago inner circle , Sher (no relation) joined the Obama team in 2009 for a two-year stint as associate counsel to President Barack Obama and then as Michelle Obama’s chief of staff. Sher, who is Jewish, also acted as the White House liaison to the Jewish community during her time in the White House.  

Before heading to Washington, she worked as the lead attorney for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley for eight years. After the mayor’s office, she spent a decade as the vice president for legal and government affairs and general counsel at the University of Chicago (U of C) Medical Center. At the U of C, Michelle Obama worked for Sher, who advised the future First Lady on legal issues related to health care. 

Earlier this year, Sher left her post in Washington and returned to Chicago, where she is currently the executive vice president for corporate strategy at the U of C Medical Center and senior advisor to the U of C president. 

On Thursday, Aug. 25, Sher, who is a former Mt. Sinai Hospital board member, will speak for the King David Society of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, a community of philanthropic leaders who give more than $25,000 to the JUF Annual Campaign. 

During a recent JUF News phone interview Sher discussed working in the White House, acting as a liaison to the Jewish community, and—occasionally— stopping to smell the roses in the White House Rose Garden. 

JUF News: How did you first meet the Obamas? 
Susan Sher: I met Michelle in 1991. I was the first assistant corporation counsel, the number two job in the legal department and always looking for good lawyers to hire. I received her resume and interviewed her…she said she wanted to do public service, but not as a lawyer. I gave her resume to Valerie Jarrett (currently an advisor to the president) who was then in the mayor’s office and she hired her. But I didn’t know her really well until she came to work for me [at the U of C]. 

During your time in Washington, one of your roles was as the White House liaison to the Jewish community. How was your experience in that role?  
It was fascinating. I learned about the depth and breadth of the Jewish community, [dealing with issues] ranging from Israel to domestic policy. I was the voice of the White House to the Jewish community. We met with all kinds of organizations from the Orthodox Union to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs to a group trying to end hunger to an immigration reform group... It was meeting with, taking concerns back to the White House, and representing the administration to the Jewish community. I hadn’t realized the breadth of great work that was being done by organizations quietly doing great work around the world.  

How does your Judaism inform what you do for a living? 
It does in the sense that my upbringing was value-oriented and stressed tikun olam and repairing the world and doing good.  

What was election night 2008 like for you? 
I called my father, who was 90, in New Jersey and asked if he wanted to come to Grant Park and he flew in. After, we were at the Hyatt with friends and family and the first lady gave my father a hug. It was the thrill of a lifetime. 

 What does the public not know about the Obamas? 
Michelle is dynamic and strong, but also warm and kind. She can look around the room and see who is most in need and go to that person. The president is equally kind but in a different way. My father died [recently] and I have a voicemail from the president of the United States talking about what a good man he was and the kind of person he was. 

During your time in the White House, one focus was Let’s Move, a program to combat childhood obesity. How did that project originate? 
Michelle’s first idea was to start a White House garden. Kids in the area came and helped, planted, and harvested. Just watching them learn about where food comes from and trying new vegetables that they’ve never tried before just resonated. She [strived] to put community gardens and gardens in schools. It was really her vision and she wanted to make a difference in the health of children. The goal is to solve the problem of childhood obesity in the next generation, which is not easy. 

Is it possible to end childhood obesity? 
One of the things Michelle said is it’s important to have aggressive goals that are achievable. When you think that this was launched not even a year-and-a-half ago, it’s amazing that she’s been able to change the conversation. You see [companies] changing the formulas of foods they make with less salt, less sugar. Everybody’s doing something and it’s really great. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is also trying to do something in Chicago.  

What’s it like to work in the White House? 
The pace is relentless. Even though I knew I was going to be there for a very short time, I tried to stop and pause and smell the roses. At the same time you’re always running around. Every morning, my first meeting was in the Roosevelt Room. To get from the Roosevelt Room back to the East Wing, you have to walk through the Rose Garden. I would literally try to say to myself, ‘Ok, you’re in the Rose Garden of the White House. You work here and this is amazing.’ 

On Thursday, Aug. 25, Susan Sher will speak to the King David Society at a program for people who give between $25,000 to $59,999 to JUF’s Annual Campaign. 

In addition, the King David Society will be leaving for a mission to Brazil on Saturday, Dec. 10. The registration deadline is Friday, Sept. 30.  

To learn more about the Aug. 25 event, the upcoming mission to Brazil, or the JUF’s King David Society in general, contact Patti Frazin at (312) 357-4878 or  

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