WINTHROP – These days, Bernie Sanders may be the most well-known Jewish politician from Vermont, but there are actually two who are a bit closer to home. Jerry and Patricia Kreitzer moved to Winthrop in 2016 and joined Congregation Shirat Hayam after serving together for six years in the Vermont House of Representatives. Sanders may have started a trend – according to Jerry, Jews are well-represented in Vermont state government.
“At one point, I think we had seven Jews in the Vermont State Legislature, and for Vermont, I think they were well-represented,” said Jerry, who noted that Jews have a long history in the Greenberg Mountain State. “Jews are sprinkled throughout Vermont. Around the Burlington area, there are many families who have been there for a long time. Wherever there was industry, Jews moved in.”
Just like Jerry Greenfield, the famous Jewish Vermonter who co-founded Ben & Jerry’s, Jerry Kreitzer grew up in New York (though Greenfield is originally from Long Island, and Kreitzer grew up in the Catskills.) After attending Adelphi University on Long Island, Jerry saw a job opening to teach behavioral sciences at a public school in Rutland, Vt. “I grew up in a small town, decided I really wanted to be in the country, and that’s where I saw an opening teaching exactly what I wanted to teach,” he said.
Patricia, meanwhile, grew up Baptist as a military brat who moved to VA hospitals all over the country, where her father worked as a psychiatric nurse. “I moved 15 times by the time I was 16 years old,” she said. “We always lived on the grounds of the VA mental hospitals, with the patients as my playmates.”
Patricia’s first marriage brought her to Vermont, where she studied geology before realizing that she was passionate about mental health care advocacy. She then spent 12 years lobbying the Vermont Legislature on behalf of children’s mental health issues. She also served as a selectwoman, village trustee, and water and sewer commissioner in her hometown of Richmond. Given her experience in local government and the State Legislature, running for State Representative seemed a natural next step. “I realized being a lobbyist that I was just as smart as all those legislators, so when the opportunity came, I ran,” she said.
In 1996, Patricia was elected to represent the Chittenden-4 District, where she remained until 2002.
Jerry, meanwhile, was drafted to run by the local Democratic party that was looking to recruit popular teachers to run for office. “They talked me into the fact that I might be able to make a difference in a whole different way, being a legislator,” he said.
In 1990, Jerry was elected to represent the Rutland 6-3 District.
For many years during their tenure, Vermont had a Democratic governor and a Democratic-majority legislature. Patricia served as the party Whip, and change was in the air. Among their notable achievements are legislation that helped eliminate disparities in public school funding to ensure quality education statewide, improvements in environmental and public health standards, and the passage of the first civil union law in the country that paved the way for same-sex marriage later on.
After the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that three same-sex couples had a constitutional right to get married, the legislature decided to vote on the issue. Tiny, bucolic Vermont quickly became a lightning rod after it drafted a bill that ensured same-sex couples all of the rights of civil marriage but stopped short of declaring them officially married. The bill passed 76-69 in 2000, but ultimately cost Jerry his seat after redistricting put him in a more conservative district. After 10 years in the Legislature, he decided not to run again.
“I don’t view this as something you do for your lifetime,” he said. “You go up when you have the vision and energy and ideas to try to change things, and then you pass the torch …”
Jerry and Patricia soon faced their own debate over marriage. They met working together in the legislature, and dated for five years before they decided to tie the knot in 2004. At that point, Patricia decided to convert to Judaism, which she felt was more in tune with her beliefs and personality.
“I really feel that Judaism is a thinking religion – Jews have the ability to think about it, to discuss it with the rabbi, the rabbi is the teacher, to question it, and review things in the Torah constantly, and try to look at it through the lens of the century we’re in,” she said.
After Jerry and Patricia retired, they decided to move near Patricia’s children and grandchildren, who live in Revere and Westborough. They chose to live in Winthrop because of its proximity to both the ocean and to Boston, and chose to belong to Congregation Shirat Hayam because they liked its young, vibrant energy. “We looked at several other synagogues that were closer, and they were very tiny, and didn’t offer classes, and committee work,” said Patricia. “At Shirat Hayam at the end of the service when they have all the little kids come in, it’s fabulous.”
Even though both Jerry and Patricia say they’ve retired from politics, they enjoy committee work at Shirat Hayam. “We saw a place where our skills could be used,” said Jerry.