Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Obituary Jewish Community Stunned by Sudden Death of Sen. Wellstone

October 28, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

American Jewish leaders are mourning the tragic sudden death of Sen. Paul Wellstone, a two-term Democrat from Minnesota almost universally lauded as a “mensch.”

Wellstone, 58, a Jew known for his liberal views on domestic and Middle East issues, died in a plane crash last Friday in Eveleth, Minn., less than two weeks before a pivotal and hotly contested election.

“You had to like Paul Wellstone,” said Judy Yudof, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, a personal friend of the two-term senator. “He was just honest and completely forthright. If you walked up to Paul, he’d give you a hug.”

The plane was taking Wellstone to the funeral of a state legislator’s father. Wellstone’s wife Sheila, 58, his daughter, Marcia, three campaign staffers and two pilots were also on board, and all perished in the crash.

There was inclement weather in Minnesota last Friday, including light snow and freezing rain.

Wellstone was in the midst of a heated re-election battle against a Republican challenger, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. The race was the only Senate contest pitting two Jews against each other, much like the 1990 race Wellstone won to join the Senate.

Both Wellstone and Coleman had strong backing within the state’s 45,000-strong Jewish community.

The political implications of the tragedy could be enormous. With Democrats clinging to a one-vote majority in the Senate, every race was considered important, and Wellstone’s race with Coleman was seen as neck and neck.

It’s unclear what will happen now. With the election less than two weeks away, Wellstone’s name could remain on the ballot, or Minnesota Democrats could try to replace him.

If Wellstone’s name remains on the ballot and he wins, Gov. Jesse Ventura, an independent, would have to choose a replacement.

Wellstone was known for his liberal views, highlighted recently in his hesitancy to support the Bush administration’s drive for military action against Iraq.

Wellstone argued that there ought to be more of a focus on disarming Iraq, and that the public was worried about the United States launching an attack without first gaining international support.

In the end, Wellstone voted against the bill authorizing military force against Iraq. The bill passed.

Jewish leaders said Wellstone’s voting record was always strong on aid to Israel. In recent years he signed or co- sponsored various congressional letters in support of Israel, including one to President Bush criticizing Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and urging the administration not to meet with Arafat until the Palestinians ended violence against Israel.

Wellstone also supported moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In the early 1990s, however, Wellstone was not considered stalwart on Israel. He did not sign on to a number of other letters and resolutions, including a 1998 letter that urged President Clinton to stop publicly pressuring Israel to make concessions and that criticized Arafat for violating the Oslo peace accords.

Such points led some pro-Israel voices to declare that Wellstone had a poor record on Israel, and some pro-Israel donors directed their contributions to Coleman in this year’s race.

The charge that he was weak on Israel greatly upset Wellstone, according to Steve Silverfarb, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

“Nothing angered him more,” he said. “That really got under his skin.”

In 1998, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, took Wellstone on a tour of religious Jewish and Palestinian communities in Jerusalem.

Wellstone talked and listened, and at night looked down from the scenic Tayelet promenade at a breathtaking view of Jerusalem. He talked about his vision of Palestinian and Israeli coexistence, Saperstein said.

“This light is what Jerusalem can be for the world,” Saperstein recalls Wellstone saying, referring to the sparkling city lights.

Silverfarb said the Minnesota Jewish community was proud of its senator, who spoke passionately about the environment, health care and social justice, reflecting moral principles and teachings of Judaism.

Wellstone was admired and respected for his convictions and was not afraid to be a lone voice on an issue, Silverfarb said.

“In private or in public, he was really the same person,” Silverfarb said. “He stuck to his guns.”

Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, called Wellstone’s death a “devastating blow” for America. She mourned the loss of someone who worked for progressive change.

“He was exactly what he portrayed himself to be, which was a tireless advocate for the entire social justice agenda,” said Rosenthal, a personal friend of both Wellstone and his wife.

Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, had been with Wellstone a few months ago when the organization brought relatives of victims of Arab-Israeli violence to Washington.

“He was a tremendous human being,” Roth said. “Much less a senator, he was a sterling example of the best that the American Jewish community had to offer.”

Wellstone was elected to the Senate in 1990 after defeating incumbent Rudy Boschwitz, a Jew and pro-Israel activist. Reached by phone last Friday, Boschwitz called Wellstone a formidable opponent.

“He was a believer, and he had my respect,” Boschwitz told JTA. “He believed in what he stood for.”

Wellstone was a frequent contributor to the dovish Tikkun Magazine. The magazine’s editor, Rabbi Michael Lerner, issued a statement praising Wellstone’s “vision of hope that affirmed the best in Judaism and the best in the secular humanist traditions.”

Daniel Spiegel, a member of the American Jewish Committee’s board of directors from Minneapolis, recalled Wellstone’s enthusiasm at a Middle East briefing with AJCommittee officials.

“He absolutely reveled in the fact that he was Jewish and supported Israel,” Spiegel said. “People felt that he was very much concerned about Jewish causes.”

Before coming to Washington, Wellstone was a community activist who taught for 21 years at Carleton College, at one point lecturing on “Social Movements and Grass-Roots Organizing.”

He was born on July 21, 1944, the son of Russian immigrants, and raised in Arlington, Va. He married the former Sheila Ison in 1963, and the couple had three children.

The couple is survived by two sons, David and Mark, and six grandchildren.

Wellstone originally had pledged to serve only two terms, but changed his mind last year. Earlier this year, he announced that he had been diagnosed with a mild form of multiple sclerosis.

The Minnesota Jewish community is making plans for a memorial service in the next few days.

Recommended from JTA