BOSTON – Even in the hallowed halls of the Massachusetts State House, Jews never turn down an opportunity to have a good nosh.
Every Jewish holiday, Jewish state officials, along with non-Jewish colleagues, convene the informal, unofficial “Kosher Caucus” to celebrate. “It always seems to be around food, quite frankly – we’ll have hamantaschen [this] week, we’ll have latkes at Hanukkah time, we’ll have blintzes at Shavuot,” said David Linsky of Natick, who has represented the 5th Middlesex District since 1999.
Jews currently holding a statewide office include: State Treasurer Deb Goldberg; State Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler (D-1st Worcester); Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem (D-1st Middlesex and Norfolk); State Senators Barry Finegold (D-2nd Essex and Middlesex); Cindy Friedman (D-4th Middlesex); Jason Lewis (D-5th Middlesex); Senator Becca Rausch (D-Norfolk, Bristol & Middlesex); Senate President Karen Spilka (D-2nd Middlesex and Norfolk); Senator Eric Lesser (D-1st Hampden and Hampshire); State Representatives Ruth Balser (D-12th Middlesex); Mindy Domb (D-3rd Hampshire); Lori Ehrlich (D-8th Essex); Ken Gordon (D-21st Middlesex); Jonathan Hecht (D-29th Middlesex); Steve Howitt (R-4th Bristol); Louis Kafka (D-8th Norfolk); Kay Khan (D-11th Middlesex); David Linsky (D-5th Middlesex); Aaron Michlewitz (D-3rd Suffolk); and William Straus (D-10th Bristol.)
As a public official representing a diverse district, Linsky was quick to stress the lighthearted, inclusive nature of the caucus. “We don’t just limit ourselves to Jewish members – we’ll invite everybody no matter what their background is,” he said. “It’s not about public policy, it’s not about religion, it’s about celebrating culture. The same way the Irish might celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on Sunday, we’ll celebrate Purim with hamantaschen.” State Representatives Ken Gordon and David Linsky are the informal organizers of the independently-financed group, which enjoys food baked by Gordon’s wife Breena Daniell Gordon.
Linsky’s response was typical of Jewish lawmakers. “We are truly representing the districts we come from, and when I look at my House colleagues, they are representing their districts the best they can,” said Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead, who has represented the 8th Essex District since 2008.
“You don’t run as a Jewish person – you represent all members of your community,” said Ruth Balser of Newton, who has represented the 12th Middlesex District since 1999.
At the same time, “Kosher Caucus” members remain proudly Jewish. Many say Judaism was a major motivating factor in getting them to run for office in the first place. The phrase “tikkun olam” – “repairing the world” – came up often.
“Judaism certainly informs the way I legislate – it all comes down to tikkun olam. We as public officials try to do whatever we can to heal the world, and to truly live that,” said Linsky, who serves as chairman of the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, and has sponsored bills related to gun safety, civil rights, and criminal justice. “I truly believe that if we’re to follow tikkun olam, we need to support programs for children, for the elderly, for the disabled, and for those who might be disadvantaged.”
“I was at Camp Tel Noar for eight years, and during that time I really took to heart the expression tikkun olam, that we should endeavor to leave the world better than we found it – acts of kindness to repair the world,” said Ehrlich, who serves as chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Export Development and has sponsored bills related to energy, environmental conservation, and sexual assault on college campuses. “Judaism served as a well of understanding that I was able to draw upon during that time.”
Little bits of Jewish wisdom provide inspiration. On her desk, Balser keeps a framed picture of the quotation from the ancient Rabbi Hillel, both in English and in Hebrew: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”
Legislators are not afraid to invoke their Jewish faith when the situation calls for it. Balser, who is chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Elder Affairs and has sponsored bills promoting expansion of health care, education, and protection against discrimination, uses the Holocaust to speak against bigotry and argue that the United States should not make the same mistake as it did in the 1930s and ’40s when it turned away Jewish refugees.
“A week or two ago, I was at a State House rally for Safe Communities about making Massachusetts a safe and welcoming place for immigrants and refugees,” she said. “I said that I was Jewish-American, and that experience has shaped to a certain extent my passion about this issue. My passion for wanting Massachusetts to be a safe place for immigrants comes from my experience being the grandchild of immigrants, and being grateful for what America could do for us, but also recognizing that in the 1920s and ’30s when the United States closed its doors to Jews trying to escape from Europe, that’s a lesson also. I don’t want to stand by and let that happen to other people.”
Ehrlich discussed her Jewish faith publicly at a rally against anti-Semitism at Temple Sinai in Marblehead after the Pittsburgh massacre in October. “I think the immigrant experience has been mischaracterized in public discourse,” said Ehrlich. “I spoke about how I got in touch with my family’s immigration story … and I suggested to everybody in the crowd that it’s a good way to be reminded that our ancestors were all immigrants at one point, and I think Jews help us understand the immigrant experience a little better.”