Jewish American Heritage Month Continues with Jews in Congress

May 9, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Posted in Identity | 3 Comments

Young Democrats of America Jewish Caucus

Today, on the anniversary of the birth of former New York Representative Emanuel Celler, we thought the timing was right to highlight the impact Jewish-American have had on the U.S. Congress.

The first Jewish Representative was Lewis Charles Levin of Pennsylvania who was elected in 1845.  Since that time, there have been some pretty incredible Representatives.

  • Today is the anniversary of the birth of Emanuel Celler, born in 1888 he would go onto serve as one of the longest-serving members of the House with nearly fifty years.  A strong advocate for immigration, he vigorously spoke out against the Johnson Immigration Act of 1924, which established a quota limit on immigration based on how many people of each nationality were in the U.S. in 1910.  During the 1940s, Celler advocated relaxing immigration laws on an emergency basis to rescue victims of the Holocaust.  After a 41-year fight to end restrictions on immigration based on national origin, the Hart-Celler Act was passed in 1965.  While serving on the House Judiciary Committee, he would help draft and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the Voting Rights Act and the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, which clarified presidential succession.
  • In 1925, Florence Prag Kahn succeeded her late husband Julius in a San Francisco-based seat. While the fifth woman to serve in Congress, she would be the first to get elected to the seat beyond completing her husband’s term.  During her 12-year career, she helped to expand military installations and the Bay Area’s infrastructure, including ensuring funding for the Bay Bridge; served on the Military Affairs Committee (the committee her husband once chaired) and was the first woman appointed to the House Appropriations Committee.  While she advocated for legislation to aid women working in the federal government, Kahn never focused specifically on so-called women’s questions “as all national positions are sexless.”
  • First elected in 1980, Thomas Lantos was the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the U.S. Congress and was an avid human rights advocate.  Lantos was part of a resistance movement against the Nazi occupation of Hungary and sought refuge in a safe house run by Raoul Wallenberg.  He immigrated to the United States in 1947.  While in Congress, Lantos served as Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and would co-chair the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, advocating for religious freedom across the globe and human rights issues.

Jews have also had an impact on the higher body of the Congress since the election of David Levy Yulee from Florida, also first elected in 1845.

  • After graduation from medical school, Ernest Henry Gruening changed careers to become a successful journalist and editor, including stints with “The Nation” and “The New York Post.”  However, he switched careers again after becoming intrigued with New Deal politics and served in various posts throughout the federal government, eventually serving as Governor of the Territory of Alaska in 1939.  Pending statehood, he was elected to the Senate in 1958, a seat he was finally able to take when Alaska was admitted to the Union in 1959.  During his ten years, he would help to establish the nationwide 911 number and was one of only two Senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
  • Not only did Abraham Ribicoff serve in the Senate but he served in the House of Representatives, as Governor of Connecticut, and as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare for President Kennedy.  After serving in local and state politics, Ribicoff was elected to the House in 1949 and would serve on the Foreign Affairs Committee.  In 1952, he lost a bid for the Senate to Prescott Bush.  However, he was soon elected as Connecticut’s first (and to date only) Jewish governor where he was forced to focus on rebuilding the state following devastating floods.  Ribicoff would nominate longtime friend John F. Kennedy for vice president in 1956 and, following Kennedy’s election in 1960, was offered his choice of cabinet position.  While Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, he would work to revise the Social Security Act but found the department to be unmanageable due to its size.  In 1962, he won election to the Senate replacing Senator Bush.  During his time in the Senate, he would serve as Chair of the Committee on Government Operations and its successor, the Committee on Governmental Affairs.
  • Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer were elected in the same year but because of seniority, Senator Feinstein is considered the first Jewish Woman elected to the Senate.  Feinstein was first elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969 and would go on to be the Board’s first female president.  Following the killing of Mayor George Moscone and Board Supervisor Harvey Milk, she would take over as mayor because of her position as board president. In 1992, Feinstein won a special election to fill the Senate seat that was vacated when Peter Wilson became governor, a seat he beat Feinstein to win.  Because Feinstein’s election was for an unexpired term, she was able to take office as soon as the election was certified, thus giving her seniority and the designation as the first female Senator from California and the first Jewish Female Senator.  She is also the first woman to chair the Senate Rules Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and to preside over a U.S. presidential inauguration.  Senator Boxer also has some “firsts” in her record.  In the Senate, she became the first female chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee and with her selections as Chair of the Select Committee on Ethics, became the only senator to preside over two committees at the same time.  Boxer was first elected to the Marin County Board of Supervisors in 1976 and would go on to serve as the first woman president of the board.  She was elected to the House of Representatives in 1982 and, in 1991, led a group of female House members to the Senate Judiciary Committee demanding that the all-white, all-male Committee take Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas seriously.  She won election to the Senate in 1992, the Year of the Woman.

Since those elections in 1845, there have been over 30 Jewish individuals serving in the House of Representatives and over 50 in the Senate.  Today, there are a total of 45 Jewish Members of Congress, 32 of whom are Democrats.

Jewish American Events that occurred on May 6:

In 1863, Barbara Tuchman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for her book “The Guns of August.”  Tuchman’s book is a history of the events surrounding the summer of 1914 and the start of World War I.  During the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is said, that President Kennedy had his advisers read the book as a cautionary tale whose lessons could help America from stumbling into World War III.

Jewish American Birthdays

1856 – The father of psychoanalysis, Dr. Sigmund Freud, was born in a part of Austria that is now part of the Czech Republic.  His family ended up settling in Vienna, where he would study and spend most of his life.  In 1932 Freud received the Goethe Prize in appreciation for his contribution to psychology and to German literary culture.  Ironically, a year later, when the Nazis took control of Germany, Freud’s books were prominent among those burned.  After the Nazis annexed Austria, Freud decided to leave Austria “to die in freedom.”  Anton Sauerwald, the Nazi official given control over all Freud’s assets in Austria, assisted Freud in leaving and even hid his books because he had studied medicine, chemistry and law.  Freud died in London in 1939 with secret bank accounts that Sauerwald helped him hide.  When Sauerwald was put on trial following the war, Freud’s daughter Anna testified that he had saved their lives.


During the month of May, the YDA Jewish Caucus will share highlights of the Jewish-American contribution.  Please visit the YDAJC Facebook Group (!/group.php?gid=2204563746&ref=ts) to read daily updates!
Sarah Holstine
Chair, Young Democrats of America Jewish Caucus Political Director, Young Democrats of America Mid-Atlantic Region (202) 905-4228

(Cross-posted from:


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  1. These updates are really great Sarah. Thank you so much for compiling.

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