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Profiles: Jewish Novices on Capitol Hill Carry Forth Old Political Tradition

As newcomers to Congress, their names may not be known to most casual observers of the political scene.

But Reps. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) — the three least senior members of the 23-strong Jewish delegation serving in the House of Representatives — are among their party’s most promising new political players.

And they are some of the Jewish community’s most highly regarded standard- bearers.

Like most of their Jewish colleagues, all three share a strong commitment to supporting Israel and the peace process, maintaining a strict separation of church and state, protecting society’s most vulnerable and promoting social justice.

But they come at these positions from distinct vantage points — one as a longtime Jewish activist from Las Vegas who has dedicated her life to public service and community involvement; one as a former congressional aide from Brooklyn who gleaned a political education from the man he would succeed; and one as an inveterate social activist from Evanston, Ill., who has been an advocate for the public interest.

A closer look at the new Jewish faces in Congress reveals three proudly identified Jews and rising political stars whom the Jewish community and political Washington will be watching closely in coming years.

“A Jew first and foremost”

While she was campaigning last year to represent Las Vegas in Congress, Shelley Berkley was advised by a Jewish acquaintance to remove the Hebrew “chai” symbol she wore on a chain around her neck. It might be better, the acquaintance suggested, if she did not accentuate her Jewishness.

Berkley refused. “I just felt it was important to wear my chai and be elected as a Jew,” she said in a recent interview.

A lifelong Jewish activist, Berkley, 48, considers her Jewish identity “the very essence of who I am,” and as a newly elected member of Congress, continues to wear that distinction with pride.

For years, she has been the public face of Las Vegas’ burgeoning Jewish community, with a lifetime of involvement running the Jewish organizational gamut.

“It’s very important for me to be a Jew, first and foremost, who happens to be an activist in politics,” said Berkley, a former cocktail waitress and keno runner who has a law degree and served one term in the Nevada State assembly in the early 1980s.

“I didn’t want to be someone in politics who happens to be a Jew.”

Berkley represents not only the fastest-growing Jewish community in the country — nearly 70,000 Jews now live in greater Las Vegas, up from 20,000 in 1995 – – but one of the nation’s fasting growing cities.

Appointed to the Transportation and Veterans Affairs Committee, she plans to go to bat in Congress to address the pressing needs facing her district’s rapidly growing school-age and senior populations.

Having served on the Board of Regents of the University and Community College System of Nevada, Berkley brings expertise to education issues.

She also brings considerable knowledge — and a relatively hard-line view — to issues surrounding Israel and the peace process. She was among a handful of members who boycotted Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s appearance at a congressional prayer breakfast earlier this year, calling him a “terrorist.”

For its part, the Jewish community of Las Vegas has expressed pride that one of its own is serving in Congress — the first Jew ever elected from southern Nevada.

It is an achievement that Berkley and her supporters in the Jewish community, whom she said she thinks of as “practically family,” marked several weeks into her term with a ceremonial mezuzah-hanging at her district office.

Rising from the rank of intern

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) still has the letter 20-year-old Anthony Weiner wrote to him in 1985, asking to come work as an unpaid intern. It was addressed to a congressman “Shumer.”

“That letter frankly continues to haunt me,” Weiner, who now holds Schumer’s seat in Congress, said with a smile, adding that Schumer still finds the “highfalutin’, grandiose letter about the great work that’s going on in Washington” highly amusing.

Fourteen years after beginning his political career at the bottom of the Capitol Hill pecking order, Weiner said that coming to Washington at age 34 “is kind of a weird, almost eerie homecoming.”

Long touted as a rising political star — at the age of 27, he became the youngest person ever elected to the New York City Council — Weiner continues to face high expectations, not only in living up to Schumer’s legacy, but in following a long line of influential Jewish lawmakers representing his heavily Jewish Brooklyn district.

“It’s a particularly tough act for me to follow” after working for Schumer because “people invoked his name frequently when talking about my career,” Weiner said.

Having worked as a congressional aide for several years, Weiner comes armed with an insider’s view of what it takes to succeed.

He said he learned early on that “a relatively small number of people run this place, and by extension, run the country. And I got a taste from Schumer of how much one person can do if they really work hard and also if they have good ideas.”

Although he was raised in a secular household, Weiner said his parents and grandparents instilled in him social values that to some extent “are informed by the principles of Torah values and also our sense of history.”

Since becoming a public servant, he said he has felt his Jewishness “growing stronger,” partly from participating in a stream of Jewish communal activities.

Weiner has been appointed as one of three Democratic freshman whips, charged with keeping track of how his colleagues will vote. Some observers say he could be tapped for a leadership position if the Democrats regain control of the House in 2000.

Representing a district that is home to one of the largest senior communities in the country and some of the nation’s most overcrowded schools, Weiner said he brings “a good deal of first-hand knowledge” to the debates surrounding Social Security, Medicare and education.

His most visible role, though, will likely be as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, where he said he hopes he can serve as a “middle-ground bridge” between political extremists on both sides of the aisle, much the way he believes Schumer did.

He remains optimistic that the fierce partisanship that has polarized the committee in recent years — culminating in last year’s impeachment hearings – – will give way to a spirit of compromise.

At the same time, he quipped, “I have been issued my body armor and helmet with the face visor, so I’ll be prepared.”

A social activist takes up the progressive flag

Jan Schakowsky launched her first successful nationwide campaign in the early 1970s as a housewife. Her cause: convincing the food industry to put freshness dates on products sold in supermarkets.

She made a name for herself as a leading social activist in Illinois over the next 20 years, fighting for the public interest and ultimately winning election to the state assembly in 1990.

Through eight years as a state representative, Schakowsky continued to push a progressive agenda, helping pass measures to strengthen hate crime laws, secure voting rights for homeless people, and increase support for public libraries, day care centers and home-delivered meals for seniors.

As a newly elected member of Congress representing the most heavily Jewish district in the Midwest — it includes Skokie, Evanston, Chicago’s lakefront and parts of its north and northwest sides — Schakowsky, 54, plans to continue to champion issues that affect ordinary people.

She has some difficult and well-worn shoes to fill in succeeding Sidney Yates, a 48-year Democratic veteran of the House who was the dean of the Jewish delegation in Congress. But proving herself a worthy successor, she said, is a task made easier by the fact that Yates “firmly planted the progressive flag” in her district.

Schakowsky said she hopes to carry on that tradition by influencing the debate surrounding Social Security and Medicare, with the hope “at some point of being able to expand the Medicare debate to be talking about health care for all Americans.”

Appointed to the House Banking Committee, she has already sought to become an active participant in issues affecting the Jewish community, supporting bills exempting Holocaust victims from paying taxes on restitution payments and strengthening the ability of federal authorities to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.

Selected as a freshman whip along with Weiner, she, too, could be tapped for a leadership position if the Democrats regain power.

Throughout her career as a public advocate and public servant, Schakowsky said she has been guided by Jewish values.

She said it is her “Jewish voice” and the tradition of “tikkun olam,” repairing the world, that has served as the spirit behind her commitment to social justice.

“I think my clarity on those questions really does grow out of my Judaism and my Jewish context, and I rely on that a lot,” she said.

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