Biden’s new right-hand man has SA Jewish links
Just more than 30 years ago, a Jewish couple got married in Cape Town. The bride was Mary Menell and the groom, Jeffrey (Jeff) Zients. Nelson Mandela, a friend of the bride’s South African Jewish family, was a guest. Now, Zients has been appointed United States President Joe Biden’s new White House chief of staff, and Menell Zients is a force in her own right.
Mary Menell Zients grew up in Johannesburg, and maintains strong ties to South Africa through her extensive philanthropic work and community development projects. Her mother, Irene (Manderstam) Menell was deeply involved in liberal politics and outreach work during and after apartheid, and was awarded the National Order of the Baobab in Silver in 2009. Mandela spoke at her father Clive’s funeral in 1996.
An old picture shows Mandela with the Zients couple, holding their baby daughter. Mandela also stayed with the Menells after he came out of prison.
Zients (56) will replace Ronald Klain, and will be the second consecutive and sixth Jewish person in this position. Biden’s daughter-in-law, Melissa Cohen, is also Jewish and South African. Biden formally announced Zients’ appointment on 27 January.
“I’ve watched Jeff Zients tackle our toughest challenges, from economic recovery to the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I look forward to welcoming him back to the White House,” said Biden. “When I ran for office, I promised to make government work for the American people. That’s what Jeff does.”
“Jeff will provide a depth of human understanding that comes from being aware of South Africa before and after apartheid,” says Afrika Tikkun Group Chief Executive Marc Lubner, who knows the family. “Mary is a ‘get-the-job-done’ person, and her influence will blend well.”
Zients is an entrepreneur and management consultant who organised the largest vaccination campaign in American history when he was co-ordinator of the COVID-19 response in the Biden administration.
“Jeff is one of the most able managers I’ve ever worked with,” says communications strategist Kenneth Baer, who served in the Obama administration alongside Zients, and whose wife’s family comes from Johannesburg. “He knows how to inspire and lead a team in the most high-pressured situations – and he does it with good humour and a smile.”
Menell Zients remains dedicated to the land of her birth. She’s a founding board member of City Year South Africa, a youth-service community programme in Johannesburg, serves on the US Advisory Council of the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, and chairs the committee of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund (NMCF) USA.
“Mary Menell Zients’ association with the NMCF dates back to her father, Clive Menell, serving as NMCF deputy chairperson alongside President Nelson Mandela as the founder and chairperson,” says NMCF Chief Executive Dr Linda Ncube-Nkomo.
“The idea of establishing the NMCF, as President Mandela’s personal response to addressing the vulnerability of children as the first democratically elected president of South Africa, was born in the living room of the Menell residence in Johannesburg,” she says.
“He pledged one-third of his presidential salary to found and perpetuate the NMCF, and formed the NMCF President’s Club, inviting others to match his pledge. The Menell family was one of the first to do so,” says Ncube-Nkomo.
“Irene Menell, Mary’s mother, served as a management trustee and board member of the NMCF since its inception in 1995, and her leadership and guidance was invaluable until her retirement in 2018.
“Mary took up the baton in 2018, which was the globally celebrated centenary of Mandela’s birth. One of his dreams was the creation of a specialist paediatric hospital for the African continent where no child would be turned away.
“This led to the flagship project of the NMCF – the philanthropic Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital [NMCH],” says Ncube-Nkomo. “As a board member and the managing director of NMCF USA, Mary focuses on fundraising efforts and uses her vast knowledge and expertise to increase the resources and clinical offerings of the NMCH.
“Mary also led the Nelson Mandela centenary celebrations in Washington, D.C. for the benefit of the Mandela legacy organisations – the NMCF, NMCH, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and the Mandela Rhodes Foundation.
“The board of trustees, management, and staff of the NMCF and NMCH are truly indebted to Mary Menell Zients for her leadership and wisdom and wish her and Jeffrey every success.”
Menell Zients’ outreach work extends to the US, where she and her husband founded the Urban Alliance Foundation, a non-profit organisation that provides paid internships, adult mentorship, and job training opportunities to economically disadvantaged youth.
She was nominated by President Barack Obama to chair the Commission on White House Fellows in December in 2013, which operates as a federal commission to recommend fellows.
Menell Zients’ parents spearheaded a legacy of public service. A mother of five, Irene Menell was a founding member of the Liberal Party. Following the party’s closure, she joined the Progressive Party, and held numerous elected positions at national, regional, and constituency levels within the party and its successors.
Her community service ranged from establishing the READ Educational Trust to more than 25 years as a manager in Helen Suzman’s Houghton constituency. She held many roles in various upliftment and cultural organisations.
“Irene was on the board of the South African Friends of Beit Issie Shapiro with me when I ran it years ago, and she showed board-governance prowess and a deep sense of compassion,” says Lubner. “The Menell family have an extraordinary legacy of taking responsibility for community programmes and giving of themselves. They have led initiatives that date back to the fight against apartheid through to driving Solidarity Fund relief efforts. Responsible philanthropy is their benchmark.”
The Menells also played a significant role in the production of South Africa’s first all-Black musical, King Kong, which was performed in 1959 and is widely recognised as a key event in African jazz history. It was during this time that they first met Mandela, who loved the show.
The Zients couple met while working together at Bain Consulting. They are parents to four children, live in Washington, D.C., and have a home in Cape Town.
In an interview soon after Mandela passed away in 2013, Zients’ daughter, Sasha, said, “When he [Mandela] got out of prison, he needed a place to hide from the press. His chief of staff, Barbara Masekela, who later became ambassador to the US, suggested that he stay with the Menell family. So, he stayed with us for about two months.
“My interactions with Madiba occurred when I was very young,” she says. “At that time, my grandfather was dying of cancer. My memories and the stories my family tells are of him showing up to my grandfather’s bedside regularly. He was president then, and he came to sit with my grandfather and tell jokes. He would also play with the grandchildren. He was like a grandfather to us.”
Writing on Facebook, Laurie Bley says, “I had the privilege of working with the incomparable Mary Menell Zients for nearly two decades as she was the sponsor and visionary of the Menell Media Exchange [an annual conference for journalists, non-profit organisations, tech developers, and students in South Africa], which so many of us worked to build.
“During this time, we all benefited from the extra insights, perspective, generosity of spirit, and fierce demanding focus on process and execution that Jeff Zients brought to the table,” says Bley. “I’m so heartened to see our leadership tapping in to the strengths of such a principled, diligent, focused, disciplined, innovative, humane, generous, kind, but can-do maker and shaker as Jeff Zients.”
Photo Credit: LinkedIn