Letters to the president: A semester at the White House

Zac Gondelman '26 spent his spring semester participating in the White House Internship program. His favorite part? Answering letters sent to President Joe Biden.

Zac Gondelman in the white house Photo/Zac Gondelman '26

Zac Gondelman spent his spring semester participating in the White House Internship program.

Every day, President Joe Biden receives thousands of hand-written letters from around the world. From foreign dignitaries to people without a home, letters are penned that share concerns, thoughts, and hopes.

Each one is thoughtfully read, with many receiving messages back from the President. This past spring, these duties were often in the care of Zac Gondelman ’26.

The Near Eastern Judaic studies major participated in the The White House Internship Program, a highly selective public service leadership and development program that gives emerging leaders the opportunity to gain experience in the highest level of government.

Gondelman knew the program was competitive, but knew it would be a great opportunity. After several rounds of interviews and many months later, he received the call in December 2023.

With just days before the start of the program, he packed up his dorm, met with his campus advisors for support, and headed to Washington, D.C. He moved in with a friend who was locally enrolled in graduate school.

He was nervous about taking a semester’s leave from Brandeis, but Monique Pillow Gnanaratnam, Dean of Students, encouraged him to focus on his internship. She arranged for special move-out timing, connected him with his advisor, and reassured him that his graduation timeline wouldn’t have to change.

“Being a Brandeis student is about going on side quests and discovering things you didn’t know,” he said. “I’m eternally grateful to our community for encouraging me and reminding me that my academics will be there for me when I return.”

A typical day in Washington, D.C. started with an early morning wake up, picking out his bowtie of the day, and a coffee and bagel on the go. He arrived at the Executive Office each morning with a new schedule ahead of him. His responsibilities included making notes on voicemails to the president, importing information into data systems, and assisting the White House staff with presidential events.

“When you work for the president’s office, no two days feel the same,” said Gondelman. “It was so exciting being among the executive office staff, interns, and volunteers. It felt like our office was the heartbeat of the nation,” said Gondelman.

His favorite assignment was responding to the president’s letters. After passing through several security checkpoints, the envelopes find their way to the executive office in the White House, where each one would receive a careful review by a team of officials and volunteers. As Gondelman and the team read through hundreds letters per day, he felt as though he was getting a glimpse of all the humanity of the world.

“There’s something so humbling and equitable in the way the mail would pour in each day. I got to see voices being amplified who aren’t always heard” he said. “Government and politics can feel really gate-kept. I got to see how many worlds there are.”

The team made an effort to follow-up on as many letters as possible. When letters merited a response, the team sent back a Christmas card, signed photo of president Joe Biden, or a personalized written note.

“I tried to think a lot about the person who was sending it and how they were feeling when reading each letter,” he said. “Calling in to leave a voicemail is instantaneous, but a written note takes time. When you’re responding as the president, it’s important to reply in the right way.”

Zac Gondelman poses with friend and the White House Egg Roll
Photo/Zac Gondelman '26

Gondelman posing with the Press Secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, during the annual Easter Egg Roll.

Spending the semester working for the White House came with its perks. Gondelman got to work alongside the White House Staff in the White House Easter Egg Roll, saw the President of South Korea, and even met President Joe Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, and Vice President Kamala Harris.

“This experience really brought humanity back into politics for me,” said Gondelman. “The president is a human being and Dr. Biden is a proud teacher. Like we discussed in Professor Jytte Klausen’s class, it’s much easier to write people in politics off as being evil, when in fact they’re just people like us.”

As he prepares to return to campus in the fall, Gondelman is excited to jump back into some of his favorite campus activities, like Brandeis Hillel and the pottery club. Even though he doesn’t see politics in his future – he intends to become a rabbi – he knows his experience with the White House will stay with him.

“It was the greatest thing on earth to peek behind the curtains of the White House,” he said. “I learned that now, more than ever, it’s important to get involved and know what is happening in the government. It really opened up my world.”

This publication is not an official affiliation with The White House Administration.

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