News + Politics
Jewish Women Who Serve—in the Statehouse
Massachusetts State Senator Cynthia Creem still remembers the retort she got when she balked at public funding for Fenway Park: “Don’t you know if we needed your vote, we would call Hank Greenberg’s widow?” she relayed. “I didn’t know who Hank Greenberg was, but I was sure it was a slight.”
That was nearly 20 years ago, at a time of such provincial politics in Massachusetts that if people in state government asked which county you were from, they meant one’s origins in Ireland, said Creem, now the Senate majority leader.
Last year, the Newton-based lawmaker became one of three Jewish women, all Democrats, to helm her state’s Senate. Creem was appointed by Harriette Chandler, of Worcester, who vacated the second-in-command post to become the first Jewish female Senate president. Chandler assumed the presidency temporarily after the resignation in late 2017 of Stanley Rosenberg, the first Jewish and openly gay president of the Senate, who stepped down amid a sexual harassment scandal involving his husband.
Last summer, Chandler, a Hadassah member who still serves in the legislature, was succeeded as president by Karen Spilka, of Ashland, who, at her swearing in, spoke about her grandfather’s 1906 escape from Russia after finding his best friend hanged in the village square for their protests over religious and political persecution.
“If America had not had open arms at the time, I would not be alive to tell my story,” Spilka said. “I would never have become an improbable senator, let alone the Senate president.”
Massachusetts may be a rare example, but more Jewish women than ever have become leaders in state politics over the last several years, according to Jeffrey Wice, executive director of the National Association of Jewish Legislators. In the 2018 session, 82 of the estimated 230 Jewish legislators across the country were women, according to Wice. “I’m finding more and more women are running for office who happen to be Jewish,” he said. “This is all part of a trend of promising and energetic candidates running and getting elected to office regardless of religion or ethnic background.”
While much attention has been paid to the new class of women, including several Jews, elected to the United States Congress in 2018, less well known are the many Jewish women serving in a wide range of locally elected positions across the country—sometimes as the sole Jew—from city council members and mayors to judges and state legislators.
It’s a moment of political momentum for women, according to Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. The election of Donald Trump, the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the birth of the #MeToo movement have galvanized women, she said, many of whom focus their agendas on women’s equity, threats to reproductive health, gun violence and immigration issues.
“I think women’s voices are being heard,” Walsh said. “And I think some of the issues that many women in office have on their agenda are being elevated.”
While more Jewish women are ascending the ranks of local government, they’ve long been actors in American politics. Pamela Nadell, director of American University’s Jewish studies program, traces those beginnings to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan, where the victims were mostly young Jewish women. Outrage over the factory’s conditions launched the career of union leader Rose Schneiderman, for example, who helped women achieve suffrage in New York.
“Jewish women have been active in local politics for a really, really long time,” Nadell said. “We just don’t know about them.”
The following profiles—in addition to those we share in the articles Leading and Legislating in Local Politics and Making a Difference as Elected Officials—aim to change that, introducing several Jewish women transforming American cities and states as leaders in their state legislatures. These elected officials, primarily Democrats, often cite tikkun olam as inspiration, and obligation, to serve.
Several consider themselves unofficial ambassadors for the Jewish community. That can mean sponsoring bills to counter the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel; such legislation has swept a slew of state legislatures in recent years and typically prohibits states from doing business with companies or individuals that boycott Israel. Or it can mean introducing Judaism to their colleagues. Minnesota State Senator Sandy Pappas, for example, brings hamantaschen to the Senate on Purim; Washington State Representative Tana Senn, whose daughter recently became a fifth-generation Hadassah member, wears her Star of David to espouse religious freedom.
Meanwhile, many cite the frustration of legislative schedules that don’t account for Jewish holidays or routine invocations made in Jesus’ name during legislative sessions. “When that happens I feel like an outsider in my own house,” Nevada Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel said, referring to Christian prayers in the State Assembly. “I’ve tried explaining that to people, and they don’t get it.”
But all these women believe in the power of local government. Yet another Massachusetts State senator, Becca Rausch, elected last year when she flipped a Boston-area Republican seat, argues that state politics provide a pivotal avenue for advancing a particular agenda. When it comes to fighting for social justice and minority rights, said Rausch, also a Hadassah member, “if it’s going to happen at all, it’s going to happen in your state legislature.”
POLITICAL ACTIVISM IS IN HER BLOOD
Patrice Arent likes to joke that the entire Jewish delegation to the Utah State Legislature agrees on everything. That’s because she’s it. Now in her 19th year representing parts of Salt Lake City and surrounding areas—after four years spent in the senate and 15 in the state’s House of Representatives—Arent was born and raised in the heavily Mormon state, the granddaughter of immigrants who moved there to trade furs with trappers.
The fact that she served on the boards of her synagogue and the local Jewish federation—and that her daughter Sarah Mulhern is a rabbi—is held in high esteem among her colleagues, the 63-year-old Democratic lawmaker said. Israel, too, enjoys widespread support in the state, she said, noting that because of the popularity of Brigham Young University’s semester in Israel program, many Utahns are familiar with the Jewish state.
Arent, an attorney, mother of four and grandmother of six, got her political start as an intern in the Utah legislature, but her education in activism started long before that. Her mother, Lynn Arent, worked for the Democratic National Committee during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s last campaign and, as the group’s White House liaison, worked directly with President Harry Truman. Her uncle, Albert Arent, with whom she occasionally spent summers in Washington, D.C., helped start the civil rights division of the United States Department of Justice. And her aunt, Cecelia Siegel, was president of Greater Salt Lake Hadassah and vice president of Hadassah’s Central Pacific region.
For her part, Arent, also a Hadassah member, serves as co-chair of the House Ethics Committee as well as the co-president of the National Association of Jewish Legislators. She has worked to improve Utah’s schools, protect consumers and crusade for air quality as founder and co-chair of Utah’s Clean Air Caucus. Indeed, Arent cites the many laws she has sponsored and championed to boost air quality as among her proudest politics moments, as well as the 2001 passage of the Newborn Safe Haven law, a bill she sponsored that allows parents to anonymously leave unwanted children at a hospital without fear of reprisal. This year, she fought for the passage of a hate crime bill and was one of a few lawmakers who spoke at its signing ceremony.
In her 2018 re-election campaign, Arent’s opponent insinuated that she opposes religious freedom and urged citizens to vote “in memory of our God” and “our religion.” The smear tactic backfired, prompting a vigorous defense by Utah’s Republican governor, Gary Herbert, who tweeted: “I would refer anyone mischaracterizing her position on religious freedom to Exodus 20:16 or 2 Nephi 9:34 [from the Book of Mormon]—passages about lying, the latter of which condemns liars to hell.”
“People don’t put up with that type of stuff here,” Arent said of the dirty politics.
EX-HADASSAH STAFFER SHIFTS FROM
ADVOCATE TO LAWMAKER
When Tana Senn was 17, she recruited female classmates from her local Los Angeles soccer league to try out for her high school team. The catch: It was the boys’ team. Her efforts, however, pressured the school to start a club team for girls. By the following year, girls’ soccer became an official school sport.
Senn’s drive for equality starts with her family’s story. Her grandmother and great-grandmother were Holocaust survivors who wound up in Kenya, where her mother was born and raised. Named for the African nation’s Tana River, Senn is fighting for their legacy—as women, as refugees and as religious minorities.
She got her start in public affairs with Hadassah. As director of domestic policy for the national women’s Zionist organization in the late 1990s, Senn worked closely with the National Breast Cancer Coalition to combat genetic discrimination by insurers and employers. Years later, as Senn neared 40, she learned she carried the BRCA1 gene mutation and had an elective hysterectomy along with the removal of her ovaries and fallopian tubes to help prevent breast and ovarian cancer. Today, at 48, her risk of breast cancer equals the average woman’s, she said. “I felt like I really paid it forward by having advocated and worked so hard on those issues.”
Eager to promote women in politics, Senn—a fourth-generation Hadassah member—left the organization to help a female cousin, Deborah Senn, then the insurance commissioner of Washington State, in what turned out to be an unsuccessful bid for the United States Senate. Meanwhile, Senn became smitten with Seattle and settled there. But it wasn’t until she was a married mother of two that she considered running for office herself, after becoming frustrated by the refusal of her all-male city council to narrow a road that was a safety hazard, she said. “Holy cow, I’ve got a public policy degree. I’m passionate about politics. I happen to have time. If it’s not going to be me, who the heck is it gonna be?” she recalled asking herself. While serving on the Mercer Island City Council, she was appointed to a vacancy in the House of Representatives in the Washington State Legislature in 2013 and ran successfully for the post in 2014.
A Democratic advocate for women and children as well as gun control and the Jewish community, Senn co-sponsored anti-BDS legislation in 2017 but said the bill flopped amid revelations about the extremist ideology of a co-sponsor. (Republican Matt Shea is under investigation for web chats about violence against “leftists” and a document he distributed outlining a holy war to establish Christian law in the country and kill all non-Christian males.)
Senn reaped a major legislative victory last year with the passage of the Equal Pay Opportunity Act, which expands employee protections, including banning pay secrecy policies and retaliation against employees who ask for equal pay. Earlier versions of the legislation she had introduced failed three times in the Republican-controlled Senate. With a Democratic majority in the Senate in 2018, the legislation passed, marking the first update in 75 years to the state’s Equal Pay Act.
FIGHTING FOR THOSE WITHOUT A VOICE
Renee Unterman made headlines this year as the Georgia Senate’s sponsor and key advocate of her state’s controversial “heartbeat” legislation, which outlaws abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, about six weeks into pregnancy. The 65-year-old Republican lawmaker and Jew by choice said her position stems from having adopted her two children: “I realize if some mother hadn’t had them, I never would have been a mother.”
Motherhood also paved Unterman’s path to public office. When she moved to Loganville, Ga., in the early 1980s, she found a dearth of playgrounds for her then-toddler son and asked the city council to build some parks. In response, the male mayor and all-male city council “basically said, ‘Little lady, that’s a little bit of tough luck,’ ” she recalled. “I literally turned around and said, ‘Someday you will listen to me.’ ” In 1986, she was elected mayor.
Now an Atlanta suburb of more than 12,000 in fast-growing Gwinnett County, Loganville in the mid–1980s was a rural town with roughly a quarter of its current population. Unterman faced a backlash as the town’s first female mayor. KKK members harassed her by dumping anti-Semitic newsletters in her driveway, along with a letter threatening to kidnap her son, a move that prompted Unterman to take him and temporarily flee the state. “They basically tried to run me out of town, but I stayed and I prospered,” she said. Since then, Unterman has served as Loganville mayor for three terms; as a commissioner of Gwinnett County, Georgia’s second most populous county; as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives; and, since 2003, as a state senator. In June, Unterman announced her bid for United States Congress.
A former social worker and nurse who has chaired the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, she has worked to expand insurance coverage for those with autism spectrum disorders. Her son, who was autistic, committed suicide 10 years ago in his mid-20s.
Unterman also has sponsored legislation to crack down on sex trafficking in her state, including one of her proudest accomplishments—the Safe Harbor/Rachel’s Law, enacted in 2015.
Unterman grew up in a Catholic family in Gwinnett County and converted to Judaism to marry her husband, a medical resident she met while working as a nurse at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital. Together, they helped found a Reform synagogue, Temple Beth David, in Snellville, where their son and daughter celebrated their bar and bat mitzvahs. “I was a great Jewish momma,” she said, recounting the family’s weekly Shabbat routine of “baking challah every Friday at 3, then going to shul.”
Unterman divorced after 25 years of marriage but said she remains committed to Judaism.
In fact, she said that her dedication to Israel, born from her experience with anti-Semitism, is one of the reasons she’s running for Congress. “I will not be one to sit back and let people criticize Israel and not have a rebuttal for it,” she said. “My reputation is being a fighter and a scrapper and taking up for those who don’t have a voice, and it comes from that history of knowing what it’s like” to be an outsider.
SOLE JEWISH LEGISLATOR JOINS PUSH
FOR HATE CRIME BILL
Before she became a politician herself, Beth Bernstein helped raise money for other candidates. When friends first suggested that she run for the South Carolina House of Representatives, the 49-year-old attorney said she “kind of laughed off the suggestion. I think my generation of women, growing up, never really thought about going into political office.”
Bernstein was recruited by the Democratic Party in 2012, when South Carolina was still reeling from a string of political fiascos—including the attempt by former Gov. Mark Sanford’s administration to cover up his six-day disappearance to visit his mistress in Argentina by claiming he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. “We were the punch line of every joke,” she said.
Running became an opportunity to help redress the poor image of her state, especially for her daughters, then 4 and 8, she said. “I really felt like whether I won or lost, it was a good example to see their mother, or [any] woman, who wants to make a difference.”
Bernstein won that first bid, as she has every two years since, representing the Columbia district where she was born and raised. She is the only Jewish member in both houses of the South Carolina General Assembly.
The legislator, who continues to practice law at her family firm, centers her legislative efforts on supporting women, children and the elderly. She said it’s hard to get legislation passed as a member of the minority party but takes pride in sponsoring bipartisan legislation, including the passage of her first bill—the Cervical Cancer Prevention Act—which provides HPV education and vaccination.
Lately, she’s been working to craft hate crime legislation in South Carolina, one of only four states without it. (The others are Arkansas, Georgia and Wyoming.) “Being Jewish and understanding what it’s like to be persecuted in some sense or manner,” she said, “has allowed me, I think, to push forward on that and explain how personal it is to me.”
At the same time, South Carolina was among the first states in the country to pass anti-BDS legislation. In 2015, Assemblyman Alan Clemmons, a Mormon and Republican, introduced the legislation, which Bernstein co-sponsored. Three years later, Clemmons helped win passage of historic legislation—also sponsored by Bernstein—defining anti-Semitism to help college campuses in the state to fight bias against Jewish students.
To foster an understanding of Judaism, Bernstein invited 15 members of the General Assembly to her older daughter’s bat mitzvah two years ago. “It’s harder to hate people that you know and you start to understand,” she said. “It’s easier to hate people from afar.”
To learn about other Jewish female politicians active at the local level, read our companion articles: Leading and Legislating in Local Politics and Making a Difference as Elected Officials.
Rachel Pomerance Berl is a freelance writer living in Bethesda, Md.
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