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Inside the Jewish life of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland

By Uriel Heilman

(JTA) – Americans have heard a lot about Merrick Garland since President Barack Obama nominated him to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court.

But there’s a lot we still don’t know.

What are his views on abortion? Will the Republican leadership give him a hearing in the Senate? What was his bar mitzvah Torah portion?

Here’s what we know about his Jewish bona fides.

He is proud of his family’s Jewish immigrant story – enough to cite it in his speech at the announcement of his nomination Wednesday in the White House Rose Garden.

“My family deserves much of the credit for the path that led me here,” Garland said. “My grandparents left the Pale of Settlement at the border of western Russia and Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, fleeing antisemitism and hoping to make a better life for their children in America.”

His father, Cyril Garland, was born in Omaha, Nebraska, but hailed from a Latvian Jewish immigrant family. He ran an advertising business out of the family home and died in 2000. Garland’s mother, Shirley Garland, still lives in the Chicago area and at one point served as director of volunteer services at the Council for Jewish Elderly in Chicago.

Garland was raised in Lincolnwood, a heavily Jewish suburb of Chicago, and had his bar mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue. He has credited his parents with instilling in him the desire for public service.

“His Jewish tradition is one of service,” Jamie Gorelick, who went to college with Garland and worked closely with him in the Justice Department, told The New York Times. Gorelick was the U.S. deputy attorney general from 1994 to 1997.

At Niles West High School in Skokie, Illinois, Garland served as student council president, acted in theatrical plays and was voted “most intelligent” boy in the class of 1970, the Times reported.

Garland started Harvard University, where he was on scholarship, on a pre-med track, but quickly changed paths. After graduating Harvard College, he went on to Harvard Law School. His wife, Lynn Rosenman, is a fellow Jewish Harvard graduate whose grandfather, Samuel Rosenman of New York, was a state Supreme Court justice and a special counsel to two presidents: Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. The couple married in 1987 in a Jewish ceremony at the Harvard Club in New York, presided over by a Reform rabbi, Charles Lippman. The Garlands are members of Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation in the capital, where both of Garland daughters, Rebecca and Jessica, reportedly had their bat mitzvahs.

The Garlands have hosted some distinguished guests for their Passover seders. In 1996, then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was a seder guest. She and Garland had to step away from the table at one point to take a phone call regarding the investigation into Ted Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber, who was arrested on Passover eve. Garland oversaw Kaczynski’s prosecution.

President Bill Clinton nominated Garland to be a U.S. circuit court judge in 1995, but the Republican-controlled Senate dragged its feet on confirming him. After Clinton won reelection in 1996 he re-nominated Garland, and the judge was confirmed in March 1997.

Jay Michaelson, a rabbi and columnist for The Daily Beast and The Jewish Daily Forward who clerked for Garland on the Appeals Court in the late 1990s, said Garland’s Jewish identity is typical of that of many American Jews.

“My sense is he wasn’t super religious or observant but very culturally Jewish – like a lot of American Jews,” Michaelson told JTA. “I think the immigrant experience and Jewish ethical values would be the two most important aspects of his Jewish identity.”

The fact that Garland is a Jewish, male, white Harvard graduate is tertiary. The court is already stacked with those: Of the eight sitting justices, five are men, six are white, three are Jews and all eight went to law school either at Harvard or Yale University. (Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated from Columbia University after transferring there from Harvard.)

If confirmed, Garland would be the court’s ninth-ever Jewish judge.

“We’re on the one hand super proud that we have a Reform Jew who is being nominated to the Supreme Court. It’s a wonderful affirmation of this jurist,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Pesner noted that his friends at Temple Sinai are “ecstatic” about one of their own being nominated to the highest court in the land. “On the other hand,” Pesner said, “we believe of course that faith should never be a litmus test for office.”

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