PEABODY – When Atlanta native Jon Ossoff was sworn in on Jan. 20 as a Democratic senator from Georgia, he did not forget his roots, which are intertwined with the Jewish community of the North Shore.
“Today, as I was sworn in, I held in my jacket pocket copies of the ships’ manifests recorded at Ellis Island when my Great-Grandfather Israel arrived in 1911 and my Great-Grandmother Annie arrived in 1913. A century later, their great-grandson was elected to the U.S. Senate,” he tweeted that day.
Ossoff, a 34-year-old Jewish documentary filmmaker and CEO of London-based Insight TWI, and Raphael Warnock, a 51-year-old pastor, made history when they became the first Jew and the first African-American from Georgia sent to the U.S. Senate. They also ended the Republican majority, bringing the voting blocks to 50-50 with Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris yielding the tie-breaking vote.
For Ossoff, the journey to Washington began generations ago when his great-grandparents left Lithuania and settled in Peabody. They ran a gas station on Main Street along with a small trucking business used to haul leather goods. Israel Ossoff served on the board of a credit union that served the Jewish community. Their children would go on to become successful in the leather business in the Tanner City, once the leather capital of the United States, and elsewhere.
“Whatever it is they [Israel and Annie] had in mind, sailing, for example, past the Statue of Liberty, whatever their aspirations, whatever their hopes and dreams … it’s doubtful it included that 100 years on, one of their family would be elected to the United States Senate,” said Jon Ossoff’s father, Richard Ossoff, in an interview. He now lives in the Atlanta area, but grew up in Lynn, New Hampshire, and Marblehead. Jon Ossoff could not be reached for comment for this story.
“Here you have the great-grandson of Jewish immigrants who came to this country roughly 110 years ago, and four generations later, a member of the family is the first Jew elected to the Senate from Georgia,” Richard Ossoff said.
In a story familiar to many Jews on the North Shore, the family – including relatives who survived the Holocaust – fled anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. On the campaign trail, Jon Ossoff spoke with pride about his Jewish heritage.
While Jon Ossoff never met his great-grandparents, “he’s very mindful of the family history and has been interested in trying to understand it more fully. So, it’s very important to him,” his father said.
“Jon’s great-grandfather was Israel Ossoff, who was a prominent member of Peabody’s Jewish community in the early 20th century,” said Nora Bigelow, assistant curator of the Peabody Historical Society and Museum, in an email. “He was a board of director of the Popular Credit Union from 1933-1934, which served the Jewish community.”
“Hyman Ossoff is Jon’s grandfather and was likely the first of Jon’s direct line to be born in the United States, specifically in Peabody. He started Ossoff Leather in Peabody, after serving in World War II, along with Suncook Leather of Pittsfield, N.H.,” said Bigelow.
Hy Ossoff was active with the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore for nearly 70 years, first in Lynn and then in Marblehead. His former home on Atlantic Avenue is adjacent to Community Road. He died in 2008 at age 89.
Jon Ossoff’s grandfather came from a family of eight: five brothers, including himself and Harry Michael, Joseph, and Melvin; and three sisters, Jenny Cox, Rebecca Zimmerman, and Tillie Rain. Melvin Ossoff of Peabody and Jenny Cox of New Jersey are the surviving siblings of this generation.
Their cousin, the late Nathan Krugman, along with his wife, Ann, survived the Holocaust and Nathan was considered the ninth sibling of the family, Richard Ossoff said.
Jon Ossoff’s large, extended family lives in Peabody, West Peabody, Beverly, Danvers, Salem, Lynnfield and other parts of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, as well as other parts of the country.
“If you put a pin in Peabody Square, or Marblehead, and drew a 10-mile circle, I bet I have 30 cousins there,” Richard Ossoff said.
Jon Ossoff grew up in Atlanta with a strong Jewish identity. Though his mother, native Australian Heather Fenton, is not Jewish, he went through a formal conversion, attended Hebrew school, and had a bar mitzvah. Jon Ossoff’s wife, Dr. Alisha Kramer, also is Jewish.
In addition, Ossoff was sworn in with his hand on the Chumash – the first five books of the Torah – of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, an outspoken civil rights advocate in the 1950s and ‘60s in Atlanta. Rothschild was the rabbi of the historic Reform congregation, The Temple, which was bombed by white supremacists in 1958.
Israel Ossoff – Jon Ossoff’s great-grandfather – was born about 1891, according to Census records provided by the Peabody Historical Society. Richard Ossoff said his grandparents came from Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.
Their service station, Ossoff’s Auto Service, was first located at 110 Main St., and it later moved to 85 Main St. in the 1940s. By 1950, Israel and Annie lived in a home to the rear of the gas station.
While the gas station no longer stands, the family still has ties to the city’s oldest shul, Congregation Sons of Israel on Park Street, which was founded in 1909, and where members of the family still attend.
“This was their roots, the family grew up in Peabody and had a very successful leather business,” said Andover resident Paul Ordman, who serves on the shul’s board. He said most of Jon Ossoff’s family were members at one time.
“The family was a very social type of family,” Ordman said. “They were also philanthropic and donated to a lot of organizations on the North Shore.”
Hy Ossoff was born in Peabody, graduated from Peabody High and briefly attended Boston University. His wife, Blanche, was born into a Russian-Jewish immigrant family from Hartford, Conn.
During World War II, Hy enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and served as a bombardier on B-24s in the Pacific. Blanche had enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps and was living in New York with her sister while in nursing school. Her brother, who lived in Peabody, was one of Hy Ossoff’s closest friends and he introduced them after the war.
They married and moved to Massachusetts. Richard Ossoff was born in 1948 and lived in Lynn. The family moved to New Hampshire for several years and then back to Lynn and then to Marblehead in 1959, when Richard Ossoff was in the sixth grade.
His younger siblings, Karen, Susan, and David, grew up in Marblehead. Richard Ossoff’s bar mitzvah took place at Temple Beth El in Lynn before it moved to Swampscott. His younger brother had his bar mitzvah at Temple Sinai in Marblehead.
“My father’s, arguably his main community involvement, his most intense and sustained, was with the Jewish Community Center,” Richard said.
Hy Ossoff played volleyball at the JCC and was so good, he was on the U.S. National Volleyball Team that went to Israel for the Maccabiah Games in 1953. When the center moved to Community Road in 1972, Hy Ossoff remained active as a board member and as treasurer, serving on committees and fund-raising.
Jack Stahl, 90, a former president of the JCC and a life board member, called Hy Ossoff “One of the most beautiful men ever made.” He was “a tremendous philanthropist throughout his life. He was absolutely great.” Stahl supported Jon Ossoff’s run, and said of him, “I really think he’s a great kid, very smart.”
Growing up, Hy Ossoff worked in Peabody’s tanneries, and when he came home from the war, he started a business selling leather, Ossoff Leather Company. As the business grew, his brother, Michael, joined him. At one time they had a sales office for buyers in Boston’s Leather District on South Street, and later, an office and warehouse at 40 Endicott St. in Peabody, Richard Ossoff said. Their brother, Melvin, also later came into the business as a partner.
Their eldest brother, Harry, had worked in tanneries in Peabody and Boston and became a founder and partner of a tannery in Dover, N.H. Ossoff Leather was a sales rep for this tannery and others. In the late 1950s, Hy Ossoff bought an abandoned mill in Pittsfield, N.H., and the brothers started Suncook Tanning Corp.
“So, his ties to the leather industry were lifelong,” said Richard Ossoff.
Today, Richard Ossoff, 72, is president and CEO of Strafford Publications in Atlanta. He attended Marblehead High and Hebron Academy in Maine for two years. He went to college in Pennsylvania, worked in Washington, D.C., then went to business school in Boston. He worked for the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. in Washington and moved to Atlanta in 1978 when the firm opened an office there. At the time, he was dating his wife Heather, who was living in Atlanta. Jon Ossoff was born in 1987.
Before the pandemic, Richard Ossoff traveled frequently back and forth to Massachusetts to visit family. When his parents were alive, the family would attend Thanksgivings at the house on Atlantic Avenue. The family also holds a reunion each year with about 60 to 70 members at a cottage in New Hampshire.
Jon Ossoff was close to his grandparents in Marblehead growing up and spent a lot of time there. Richard Ossoff said his parents imparted their values, with an emphasis on civil rights and community focus, on their grandson.
There is another branch of the family that Jon Ossoff is close to: the Krugman family on his great-grandmother’s Annie’s side.
Annie Ossoff’s sister and her sister’s husband and one of their children died during the Holocaust, Richard Ossoff said. But their younger son, Nathan Krugman, managed to escape from a concentration camp. Around 1947-48, he and his wife, who also happened to be named Ann, wound up in a Displaced Persons camp in Europe.
The Jewish Agency was placing ads in local newspapers for those who were displaced, and the couple knew they had relatives in Peabody. They ran an ad in the Boston and Yiddish papers, and Israel and Annie Ossoff saw it and brought them to Peabody. They told their eight children of Nathan, “this is your ninth sibling.” Nathan Krugman, who passed away in 2010 at age 86, also has family living on the North Shore.
“I think it’s fair to say Jonathan feels very strong ties to the area and family connections there, and a great fondness for the area,” Richard Ossoff said.