Is it ironic (or impolitic) that Chuck Schumer the new Democratic Senate leader, and Bernie Sanders, who made such a dramatic run on the left for the presidency, grew up within a mile of each other? It was in Brooklyn, "down along the King’s Highway." They both attended James Madison High School, at different times, as did Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a valedictorian of her class, who was also a cheerleader.
Quite a combination, wouldn’t you say.
As it happens, both my wife and I and my sister Eleanor, lived in that same enclave, and attended Madison high school as well. There were 6,000 others students in those days, but it was a well ordered school, run by efficient people that turned out many respectable and successful citizens.
Subsequent to that, Schumer became the congressman representing our district. He replaced Steve Solarz who was gerrymandered elsewhere. Solarzs’ wife Nina and my sister were at Wellesley College at the same time and have remained friends throughout the years. Brooklyn then, as you can see, was a "haimesh" place.
My wife Ricky and I moved out of the neighborhood after college, but our parents remained. My mother would report that Congressman Schumer was quite attentive to the needs of the district, and his office was always available. Some years later, when I was serving in a congregation on Long Island, two of my colleagues joined me in Schumer’s office, soliciting his aid in attaining freedom for the then Prisoner of Zion, Anatoly Scharansky.
Scharansky’s wife Avital had asked us to help, so there we were agitating on his behalf.
The back channel story persists, that Avital finally was granted a chance to tell President Ronald Reagan her sad story with Anatoly. They were married just a few hours before he was hauled of to jail on some trumped up charge. Reagan then spoke to Gorbachev on Scharanskys behalf, and low and behold a short time later he was set free. Glasnost was already in the air.
A short time later, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. Personally I shall never forget that Schumer was most attentive to our plea on behalf of Scharansky. In those days, protest seemed useless, go move the Soviet Union to justice, or sympathy, or whatever.
But in the end, it worked. A miracle of persistence.
Why do I tell this story now?
In 1998, Schumer was elected to the Senate from New York. There was to be a ceremony at the then Avery Fisher hall to install him in his new office. Vice President Al Gore, was serving as installing officer. Suddenly, out of the blue, I receive a call from Chuck Schumer, "Rabbi I would like you to deliver the opening prayer at the ceremony. I hope you can come."
The hall was crowded with friends, supporters, and donors. I spotted a number of my congregants among them. The mood was festive. One of our guys had made it.
Al Gore is getting ready to introduce and install Chuck Schumer. To begin, he tells the following, captivating story: Chuck was a student at the Harvard Law School. When it was time to graduate his parents proudly arrived. On the way home, with his father and mother in the car, his father suddenly asks, "So now that you are a Harvard lawyer, what do you intend to do?" Schumer responds immediately "Oh I decided to go into politics and run for the New York State Assembly."
Well, it should be reported as background that the New York State Assembly was not known for producing star statesmen. So the father, an exterminator by trade, stopped the car and asked Chuck to step out with him (so that mother would not hear.)
"Chuck, you think we sent you to the Harvard Law School to be an Assembly man in New York State, you got to be kidding." But Chuck wasn’t. He went on to be the youngest assemblyman in State history — then onto the House of Representatives, then on to the Senate, and now onto the Minority Leader. It only goes to show that trees sometimes grow from acorns. You never know!
Lest you think that Schumer and I are best buddies, let me conclude with the following:
Two years ago, I officially retired from my then interim position as rabbi in Greenport, New York. My successor was a younger, Israeli rabbi, who was having difficulty obtaining a green card, to which he was entitled by way of his clergy position. He reported his dilemma to me, and I suggested that we meet at the AIPAC conference the next week. I had read that Schumer was going to be present and I thought, if we were lucky, we would have the opportunity to talk to him about Rabbi Gadi.
And so it was. Gadi joined me and there was Chuck. He recognized me immediately "So Rabbi Fensterheim, how are you?" He had remembered me, but not quite my name. Andy Warhol was correct, 15 minutes. Gadi did get his well deserved green card, and Chuck is now a leader of the United States Senate. Small acorns do become tall trees.
Rabbi Myron M. Fenster is the rabbi emeritus of the Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, N.Y. A graduate of Yeshiva of Flatbush, Yeshiva College, and the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Fenster also studied in the graduate school at Columbia University for a degree in philosophy. He was the first American rabbi sponsored by the Rabbinical Assembly to an Israeli congregation. He has written for several publications, including Newsday, the Jerusalem Post and Hadassah Magazine. Read more of Rabbi Fenster's reports — Go Here Now.
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