Profile: Ileana Ros-Lethinen
Representing an ethnically diverse and vibrant city such as Miami has given this politician the experience and knowledge to be effective in Washington.
South Floridians know United States Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as a Cuban American who has been a loyal ally to Israel, an advocate for minorities and a supporter of educational reform. In December of last year, she was selected to the top Republican seat on the International Relations Committee—a position she had striven for while chairing the House Subcommittee on Middle East and Central Asian Affairs.
However, few know of her Jewish roots that have helped shape who she is—both politically and personally.
Raised Roman Catholic and today Episcopalian, the congresswoman is proud of her Jewish heritage. Her mother, raised Jewish, converted to Catholicism when she married Ros-Lehtinen’s father. Her maternal grandparents were Jews who came to Cuba from Turkey.
“My daughters were baptized and confirmed, but part of their upbringing has been a celebration of their Jewish ancestry,” said the petite, energetic blonde. “They have a great deal of pride for their grandmother’s Jewish roots. I am very proud of my heritage—it is a good mix of diversity that was present in Cuba, pre-Castro.”
With Fidel Castro’s health deteriorating, Ros-Lehtinen believes democracy in Cuba might finally be possible. “His days are numbered,” she predicted. “His brother, Raul, is there, but I don’t think he can hold power without Fidel….”
And while she is not involved with aiding the Jewish population in Cuba directly, Ros-Lehtinen, 54, pays tribute to the many leading Jewish Cuban Americans who are. “They are faithful to their religion and anxious to build a temple and revive the faith,” she said.
At Ros-Lehtinen’s home in Pinecrest, Florida, a large gold menora is perched on a shelf in the kitchen—a thank-you gift for speaking at a Coconut Grove synagogue. In the family room sits a framed photo of herself, her husband, Dexter Lehtinen, and their two daughters standing in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Her eldest daughter, Amanda, 20, is a student at Brown University and a former campaign coordinator for her mother; Patricia, 19, is enrolled at Yale University.
I have actively supported and worked to ensure that Israel receives the economic and security assistance from the United States that it needs for its survival,” said Ros-Lehtinen. Thankful to have had the opportunity to visit the Jewish state several times, she is concerned about one aspect of the latest Ethics Reform Package now before Congress. The ethics in lobbying rule, which would ban legislators from taking gifts or trips, fails to make a distinction for legitimate trips. Lawmakers should be able to accept trips that will educate them on the issues, Ros-Lehtinen argues, noting that missions to Israel, funded by organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Jewish National Fund, have allowed her and her peers to better understand the Middle East.
“There is a difference between junkets for pleasure and those where a group of American leaders have the opportunity to meet with Palestinian and Israeli leaders,” she explained. “It is not a propaganda trip.”
Ros-Lehtinen went on to say “the issue of Israel’s security should never have a political party issue attached to it. It isn’t a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. It is an issue that knows no party.”
The congresswoman is particularly focused on the spread of human rights, an undertaking clearly evident in her legislation. For example, she authored the Iran Freedom Support Act, a law placing sanctions on Iran. Another bill, the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006, addressed the threat to United States national security and foreign policy interests posed by a Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority. Designed to deny funding to the PA as long as Hamas is in control, the act has passed the House and the Senate, but has not yet become law. The bill also calls for a reduction in diplomatic ties with the PA and for it to be designated a “terrorist sanctuary.”
She also wrote the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act “to combat Syria’s support for Islamist terrorism, pursuit of unconventional weapons and murderous meddling in Lebanon,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Iran and Syria have been supporting Hamas and Hezbollah and must be held responsible for the armed attacks against Israel.”
And just last August, after weeks of Israel’s conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Ros-Lehtinen sent a letter to President Bush, asking him to “enhance pressure on Syria to abandon policies that threaten U.S. national security, our interests and our allies” and to implement all sanctions under the accountability act.
Ros-Lehtinen’s tireless efforts on behalf of the Jewish state have won praise from Israeli politicians. In May 2006, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking before a joint session of Congress, singled out the congresswoman—then chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia—as well as Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos of California for passing legislation that confronts threats to security in the Middle East. Olmert further commended the House of Representatives for passing Ros-Lehtinen’s Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, noting that it “sends a firm, clear message that the United States of America will not tolerate terrorism in any form.”
Last november, ros-lehtinen addressed the Greater Miami Jewish Federation at its opening campaign event. Judy Gilbert-Gould, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said she was chosen because she has “a keen understanding of the complexities involved between Israel and the Palestinians. She has been a longtime, staunch supporter of the State of Israel and a good friend of ours.”
Gilbert-Gould pointed to the congresswoman’s volunteering at the Jewish federation’s yearly phone-a-thon event, Super Sunday, for the last five to six years, as just one example of her resolve.
In arranging a speaking engagement for last year, Martha Olchyk, vice president for education at the Inter-American chapter of the Greater Miami Region of Hadassah, knew Ros-Lehtinen would be popular among the women in her chapter—who are mostly Latina—but was surprised by the size of the reception, which included more than 350 people, both men and women, young and old.
“She is very pro-Jewish and I thought she would be a good draw,” said Olchyk. “She wanted feedback from us and wanted to know how she could help out. She encouraged us to be more active and to write the news media demanding impartiality.”
Ros-Lehtinen wants to see Israel treated equally in the global market and within international forums, so she introduced a resolution—since adopted by the House of Representatives—expressing support for Israel’s accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. She also introduced a resolution supporting an upgrade in Israel’s relationship with NATO that was unanimously adopted by the Committee on International Relations.
The motivation, or at least the origins, of her support for Israel no doubt comes from her family history. Born in 1952, Ros-Lehtinen was a child refugee from Castro’s regime. At age 8, she moved with her parents to Miami, while her grandparents stayed in Cuba.
“My grandfather was active in Jewish life in Cuba, but I didn’t have the opportunity to know him,” she said. “Many people here remember him, though. I have a hazy recollection of going to temple with him. I remember him as strongly dedicated to being a practicing Jew.”
Isidoro Morjiam, a Miami physician, remembers hearing stories of his grandfather, Isidoro Zarcho, playing poker back in Cuba with Ros-Lehtinen’s grandfather, Jacobo Adato. Morjiam’s mother, Sarita, was a childhood friend of Ros-Lehtinen’s mother, Mandy.
“We saw her once with her family at an ice-cream parlor in Miami,” said Morjiam, 57. “My mother was using a walker and Ileana came over to talk to her for a long time. It was really heartwarming to see her take the time with my mother like she did.” Morjiam is president of Temple Menorah in Miami Beach, where Ros-Lehtinen gave her Hadassah speech last November to a standing-room-only crowd.
“The Cuban Jewish community loves her because of what she does for South Florida in general and for Israel in particular,” Morjiam noted. “She has the ability to talk about what is happening with the Hispanic community, the Jewish community, the African-American community, the Anglo community, and even the Haitian community speaks highly of her. That is why she gets 60 percent of the vote.”
A former educator, ros-lehtinen received a bachelor’s degree in higher education from Florida International University in 1975 and a master’s degree in educational leadership from FIU in 1987. Hoping to return to the education field one day, she received her doctorate in higher education from the University of Miami in December 2004.
She founded a private elementary school in Miami, serving as its chief administrator; it was later sold. From 1982 to 1986, she was elected as a Republican member of the Florida House of Representatives—its first Hispanic woman—and, from 1986 to 1989, served in the Florida Senate.
Ros-Lehtinen was elected to the United States House of Representatives when Claude Pepper, also a big supporter of Israel, died in 1989. She became the first Hispanic woman and the first Cuban American elected to Congress.
In her spare time, Ros-Lehtinen reads fiction and bikes, usually with her family. Ultimately, it is her family, particularly her parents, whom she credits with keeping her focused.
“I have had wonderful role models in my parents,” she said. “They kept up the fight for freedom and democracy in Cuba even after they left…. I am very proud of my Jewish roots and my mom’s culture and religion. My mom is the super glue that holds us together.”
Linda Brockman lives near Fort Lauderdale and writes about Jewish culture. She recently contributed an article to Jews of South Florida (Brandeis University Press).