Here in Connecticut, the topic of Jewish Americans in government and politics immediately brings to mind the names Abe Ribicoff, Joe Lieberman, Richard Blumenthal, Nancy Wyman and the many other Jews involved in state government. In fact, we’ve written about most of them in the pages of the Ledger. And so, we’re going to skip over them here and, instead, take a brief look at a small sampling of the other prominent American Jews who have helped our nation grow by dedicating themselves to a life of public service.
MADELEINE KUNIN (Sept. 28, 1933) was the first female governor of Vermont — and the first woman to be elected governor of any state three times. Born in Switzerland, she fled the threat of a German invasion in 1940, immigrating to New York City with her widowed mother. Many of her relatives died in the Holocaust, a factor that she calls “the source of my political courage.” First as a Democratic member of the House of Representatives (1972-8), then as lieutenant governor (1978-84), and finally as governor (1984-91), Kunin used her offices as a way to promote leadership roles for women; she appointed many women to various positions in her administrations. President Bill Clinton appointed her Deputy Secretary of Education and, in 1996, Ambassador to Switzerland.
ARTHUR GOLDBERG (Aug. 8, 1908 – Jan. 19, 1990) served as the U.S. Secretary of Labor, Supreme Court Justice and Ambassador to the United Nations. Goldberg was born and raised on the West Side of Chicago, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His interest in the law was sparked by the noted murder trial in 1923 of Leopold and Loeb, two wealthy young Chicagoans who were spared the death penalty with the help of their high-powered defense attorney, Clarence Darrow. Goldberg later pointed to this case as inspiration for his opposition to the death penalty on the bench.
JUDAH BENJAMIN (Aug. 6, 1811 – May 6, 1884) was a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives; in 1852, he was elected by the state legislature to the U.S. Senate from Louisiana, the second Jewish senator in U.S. history (after David Levy Yulee). Following the formation of the Confederate States of America in 1861, he was appointed by President Jefferson Davis to three different Cabinet posts in his administration. Benjamin was the first Jewish appointee to a Cabinet position in a North American government. Born a British subject in 1811 in Saint Croix, he was the son of Sephardi Jews. He emigrated with his parents to the U.S. in 1813, where the family first lived in Wilmington, N.C., and then Charleston, S.C., where his father was among the founders, with Isaac Harby, of the first Reform congregation in the United States.
ABE BEAME (March 20, 1906 – Feb. 10, 2001) was mayor of New York City from 1974 to 1977. As such, he presided over the city during the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s, during which the city was almost forced to declare bankruptcy. When he left office in 1977, the city budget had changed from a $1.5 billion deficit to a surplus of $200 million.Born in London and raised on New York’s lower east side, Beame was the first mayor of New York City who was a practicing Jew. He became city budget director from 1952 to 1961, and was elected to two terms as city comptroller in 1961 and 1969. In 1965 he was the Democratic nominee for mayor, but was defeated by the Republican candidate, John V. Lindsay. He was succeeded in office by another Jewish mayor, Edward I. Koch.
BELLA ABZUG (July 24, 1920 – March 31, 1998) was the first Jewish woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. A leader in the women’s movement, in 1971 she helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus. She notably declared “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives” in her successful 1970 campaign. She was later appointed to chair the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year and to plan the 1977 National Women’s Conference by President Gerald Ford. Born Bella Savitsky in New York City, she was the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants.
HENRY KISSINGER (May 27, 1923) served as National Security Advisor and later concurrently as Secretary of State in the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. After his term, his opinion was still sought by many subsequent presidents and many world leaders. A recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, he pioneered the policy of détente with the Soviet Union, orchestrated the opening of relations with the People’s Republic of China, and negotiated the Paris Peace Accords, ending American involvement in the Vietnam War. Born Heinz Alfred Kissinger in Fürth, Bavaria, Germany in 1923 to a family of German Jews, he arrived in New York with his family in 1938 as they fled Nazi persecution. Kissinger spent his teen years in the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan as part of the German Jewish immigrant community.
HARVEY MILK (May 22, 1930 – November 27, 1978) was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Milk moved from New York City to settle in San Francisco in 1972 and served almost 11 months in office. He was responsible for passing a stringent gay rights ordinance for the city. On Nov. 27, 1978, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, another city supervisor who had recently resigned but wanted his job back. Despite his short career in politics, Milk became an icon in San Francisco and a martyr in the gay community. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
BENJAMIN CARDOZO (May 24, 1870 – July 9, 1938) was an associate Supreme Court Justice from 1932 until his death in 1938 and is remembered for his significant influence on the development of American common law in the 20th century. Cardozo was born in New York City to Sephardic Jews,, all four of his grandparents were members of the Portuguese Jewish community affiliated with Manhattan’s Congregation Shearith Israel; their families emigrated from England before the American Revolution, and were descended from Jews who left the Iberian Peninsula for Holland during the Inquisition. He was a cousin of the poet Emma Lazarus.
EDWARD LEVI (June 26, 1911 – March 7, 2000) served as United States Attorney General during the administration of President Gerald R. Ford. He is credited with restoring order after Watergate and the consensus of scholars is that he is one of only two truly outstanding AGs in modern times. Levi was born in Chicago, Ill., the son and grandson of rabbis. His maternal grandfather was Emil Gustav Hirsch, son of the German philosopher and rabbi Samuel Hirsch.