When he was a member of the state Senate, David Adelman annually spoke to students at Jewish day schools.
“I vividly recall one year when a young student raised her hand and declared that she did not think Jews were permitted to run for office in Georgia until she met me,” said Adelman, a Democrat who served from 2003 to 2010 in the upper chamber of the General Assembly.
Georgia has its highest-ranking Jewish elected official ever in second-term Attorney General Sam Olens, a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2018. Otherwise, with only two Jewish members left in the Georgia legislature, day school students might start to wonder.
Jewish representation in the legislature dates to its earliest days, even before Jan. 2, 1788, when Georgia became the fourth state to ratify the U.S. Constitution.
Pennsylvania native David Emanuel fought with the Burke County militia in the Revolutionary War. He entered the legislature in 1783, served as a delegate to the constitutional conventions, as president of the Senate and as acting governor for eight months during 1801. Historians consider Emanuel to have been Jewish, though he became a Presbyterian as an adult.
Abraham Simons of Wilkes County, a captain in the Revolutionary War, was elected to the legislature in 1804. Simons is remembered for being buried — as requested — standing up, in uniform and holding his musket (so that he could shoot the devil). His widow married the Rev. Jesse Mercer, who used the wealth Simons amassed as a businessman to establish Mercer University, a Baptist institution in Macon.
Raphael Moses practiced law in Columbus and pioneered the commercial growing and sales of peaches. A slaveholder, Moses advocated for secession from the Union and held the rank of major as a commissary officer for the Confederate army. Elected to the House after the Civil War, the Democrat chaired the Judiciary Committee and was a critic of Republican-led Reconstruction.
“I feel it an honor to be of a race whom persecution cannot crush, whom prejudice has in vain endeavored to subdue,” Moses told a newspaper in 1878, responding to critics during a political campaign.
Jews make up about 1.3 percent of Georgia’s population. When the General Assembly gavels into session this morning, with 180 House members and 56 senators, its two Jewish lawmakers — Rep. Michele Henson, D-Stone Mountain/District 86, and Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford/District 45 — will make up about 0.8 percent of the total.
The 40-day session promises its share of controversy, including another attempt to pass Sen. Josh McKoon’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act and consideration of a separate measure that would mirror the proposed federal First Amendment Defense Act to shield Georgians, including public employees, who decline on religious grounds to provide services to same-sex marriages.
The docket also may include debate over immigration, transportation funding, public education funding, casino gambling, college affordability and the Confederate monument at Stone Mountain.
Henson, who took office in 1991, is the longest-serving woman in the House and the senior member of the delegation representing DeKalb County.
The new year marks the beginning of Unterman’s 26th year in public service, having been the mayor of Loganville and a Gwinnett County commissioner before being elected in 1998 to the Georgia House and in 2002 to the Senate.
Last session, two Jews served in the Georgia House, but Mike Jacobs, a Brookhaven Republican who represented District 80, exchanged the legislative branch for the judiciary after Gov. Nathan Deal appointed him as a judge on the State Court for DeKalb.
“I will miss” Jacobs, Henson said. “Mike and I argued a lot, especially on DeKalb politics — very, very much. I like him, but I don’t like his politics. I like him as a judge. Mike will be a great judge.”
Jacobs, told of Henson’s comment, responded in kind. “As the only two Jewish legislators in the House, Michele and I shared a bond that transcended any differences of opinion we may have had from time to time. Michele is a good friend.”
Jacobs served in the House from 2005 to 2015. The lawyer was elected as a Democrat but in 2007 joined the Republicans. After winning his first election in 2004 by a narrow margin, he easily won re-election four times.
The end of Jacobs’ legislative tenure was notable. In the Judiciary Committee he amended the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which had passed the Senate, to prevent “discrimination on any ground prohibited by federal, state or local law,” leading to the measure being tabled and incurring the wrath of conservative commentators.
“It ebbs and flows,” Jacobs said of Jewish representation. “There have been more Jewish members of the General Assembly in the past. Right now we are at or near a low-water mark. I think the challenges with regard to legislative service are the same for everybody. It does require you to give up approximately three months of your life every year and to put your business obligations and professional obligations and sometimes family obligations on hold, and that’s a very difficult thing to ask any citizen to do. It’s a great honor to serve in the General Assembly and be the voice of your community in the legislative body of the state, but by the same token it requires considerable sacrifice.”
Jacobs tells audiences to thank their state legislators because of the commitment the job requires.
Georgia legislators are paid $17,341 a year plus $173 in per diem during the legislative session.
“In the past, a number of Jewish legislators, such as Elliott Levitas, Sidney Marcus and Cathey Steinberg, have had notable careers. Jews have never been a large presence at the legislature, but they have certainly not been invisible,” Baxter said. “As a generality, I’d say all the things which have caused white Democrats to diminish so rapidly — the conversion of white conservatives to the GOP, the increase in African-American Democratic candidates, and the impact of reapportionment and redistricting — have also affected Jewish representation. However, there have been Jewish Republicans; Mitch Kaye certainly cut a wide swath.”
Kaye, a Cobb County Republican who represented House District 37 from 1993 to 2003, offered a partisan perspective.
“Why so few Jews and probably declining? The majority of Jews are left of center. With the GOP growth — when I came into office, it was a one-party state, Democrat; now it is one-party GOP — there are less opportunities for Democrats,” Kaye said. “If you look at our congressional delegation, it is either Republican or black. The white Democrat is a dying breed in the South. This is also the case in the legislature, but not as dramatic. There are still white liberal Democrats in the metro area, but few white Democrats in the rural areas. The ones I served with either got beat by a Republican or changed parties. So the growth of Jewish legislators should — should — be on the GOP side or not at all.”
Looking back on his time in the House, Kaye said: “The legislative environment was neither welcoming nor not welcoming to Jews. But I have found that gentiles respect Jews who respect their Judaism. At legislative dinners at the Governor’s Mansion, the staff bent over backwards to accommodate my Jewish dietary observances. In fact, my personal journey towards greater Jewish observance and education was spurred on by my many religious Christian colleagues.”
He said he and his Christian colleagues would talk about biblical stories and principles, and Kaye found that he lacked the depth of knowledge. So he learned and grew in his religious observance.
“A number of legislators have Jewish ancestors. One religious Christian was even halachically Jewish, and we joked about him counting towards a minyan. More than a few rural legislators had very positive stories of how their grandparents were helped during the Depression and other hard times by a local friendly Jewish merchant and often naming their children after these Jewish friends,” Kaye said, citing the example of a Democratic majority leader with whom he served, Larry Cohen Walker Jr.
Kevin Levitas, the son of former Democratic Congressman Elliott Levitas, who also served in the state House, represented District 82 in the House as a Democrat from 2007 to 2011.
“I served as a Jewish, urban-county lawyer-businessman, and among my closest friends were farmers from more rural parts of the state. I enjoyed my service on the Agriculture Committee perhaps more than any others,” Levitas said. “My areas of interest were broad (agriculture, crime, transportation, science and technology, etc.) but not focused on any subject area that I would consider different from my non-Jewish colleagues. In other words, differences in background were neither a barrier to friendships nor a dividing line between the kinds of legislation on which we focused.”
More than 200 Jews serve in some 40 state legislatures, representing a larger percentage of the 5,400 state legislators nationwide than the portion of Jews in the general population. Not only are Jewish lawmakers found in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and California, but also in Idaho, Alaska and Hawaii.
The vast majority, perhaps as high as 90 percent, are Democrats.
Jeff Wice, the director of the National Association of Jewish Legislators, said two concerns are most common among Jewish legislators: sensitivity to anti-Semitism and the defense of Israel. In rural states with smaller Jewish populations, a Jewish legislator may be expected to be the expert on Israel in the eyes of gentile colleagues.
“Our No. 1 issue right now is the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, sanctions movement and to deal with that on a no-one-size-fits-all basis, whether we want to promote Israel trade, do nothing, or oppose bad legislation and resolutions harmful to Israel,” Wice said. Several states have passed measures opposing the BDS movement.
Wice said Henson and Unterman have been active in the NAJL.
As to the relatively small number of Jews in the Georgia legislature, Unterman said: “Historically, whether they’re Jewish or women or whatever, the South has always lagged behind. It’s not coincidence; it’s historical.”
Unterman has represented District 45, home to more than 181,000 residents of northern Gwinnett County, since 2003.
“If you want to make social change or cultural change, you have to be in the majority party,” she said. “You can’t do anything” in the minority party, a lesson she learned as a Republican in a Democratic-dominated state House. Today, Republicans control both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor’s office.
Unterman is a Jew by choice; she was “raised Catholic and went to Catholic school and had a very Catholic mother.” She described her conversion to Judaism as rigorous and adhering to Orthodox tradition and law, including a year of study, testing by a panel of rabbis and visits to a mikvah.
“I believe in G-d and consider myself very conservative and very religious,” she said. Unterman recalled that she and her ex-husband were involved in the early days of Temple Beth David in Snellville.
She has since remarried and attends church with her husband.
During a 2011 Senate debate over legislation that allowed local governments to hold referendums on Sunday liquor sales, Christian opponents cited a need to protect their Sabbath.
“I’m Jewish; mine is Friday and Saturday,” Unterman said.
With degrees in nursing from Georgia State University and social work from the University of Georgia, Unterman chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and is vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
Combating child sex trafficking is a major Unterman priority. She credits the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, Ahavath Achim Synagogue and The Temple for their support and engagement on the issue.
“I am completely indebted to them, and if I had not had those Jewish ties, I don’t think the issue of sex trafficking would be as advanced as it is,” said Unterman, who hopes that voters this year approve a constitutional amendment the legislature passed last spring to require the adult entertainment industry to finance therapeutic treatment for sex-trafficking victims.
“The issue is very personal, very, very personal to me,” Unterman said. She told how some years ago she returned home distraught from a visit to Angela’s House in Palmetto, the first safe house in Georgia for girls escaping sex trafficking. Witnessing her emotions, her son Zac urged her to use her legislative influence on the issue.
He took his life not long after, and Unterman said his memory remains an inspiration to her.
She also has advocated for requiring insurance companies to help pay for the cost of treating children with autism, and she voted in favor of the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act last year before the measure stalled in the House.
Dating back to her tenure as mayor of Loganville, “the defense of Israel and the right of Israel to be the homeland of the Jewish people … and to exist peacefully” have been important issues for her, Unterman said.
Henson is beginning her 26th year in the legislature. The Quincy, Mass., native earned a degree in sociology from the University of Miami and moved to Atlanta in 1978.
District borders are redrawn in Georgia every 10 years, most recently in 2012. Henson said that the odd shape of District 86 is the result of gerrymandering by Republicans. It extends from Stone Mountain, where Henson lives, to near Northlake Mall, along the way encompassing five exits on Interstate 285. With an estimated 57,660 residents, the district is the sixth most populous in the House. Its population is 61.3 percent black, 27 percent white, 6.4 percent Asian and 3.5 percent Hispanic.
When you are in the minority — in Henson’s case, as a Democrat in a chamber that’s two-thirds Republican — you seek achievement when and where you can, she said. “You stand up for what you believe, and you put your efforts into what you feel you can have some success with. … You don’t go and get upset by things that aren’t of great import or that you aren’t going to be able to effect any change. You have to choose and pick your battles.”
As to how being Jewish affects her legislative outlook, Henson said: “I think I want to be more inclusive at times. I look at the inclusiveness of all religions. We were all immigrants. I have a more liberal view regarding that, a more liberal view toward people practicing religion and practicing their different religions. I feel that we should accept people, not discriminate against people, but that also extends beyond religion.”
Henson said she has attended services at Shema Yisrael: The Open Synagogue. “My Judaism is in the culture, my identity. My heritage goes way, way back. I’ve never considered not being Jewish, not standing up for my faith.”
Henson said she has experienced overt anti-Semitism not from her legislative colleagues, but from a less secular element.
“Only from the preachers that come in and the chaplains,” Henson said. “We have a chaplain every morning. Some of them have made me very uncomfortable” with heavily Christian messages. On occasion she has complained to the speaker of the House, asking that the chaplains recognize that Georgia legislators represent a diverse population.
“I can tell you that I never experienced anti-Semitism during my four years in the House. To the contrary, I felt both welcomed and supported as a Jew,” Levitas said. He singled out Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Atlanta, and former Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, as being particularly supportive of Israel on such measures as divesting state funds from Iranian investments.
“I recall one Yom Kippur being shocked to see Sen. Balfour attending services at The Temple. He was a large man, so he would have stood out anyway, but unlike most of us, he was laser-focused on the rabbi’s sermon,” Levitas said. “My sense was that Jews are considered by many to be G-d’s chosen people, and like many Southern Jews before me, I sensed that non-Jews welcome Jews as people of G-d.”
Adelman likewise was proud to be a Jewish member of the General Assembly.
“Serving in the state legislature is consistent with Jewish values which emphasize community engagement and repairing the world. I am truly grateful for the support the Jewish community provided to me during my career in Georgia politics. I loved every day of service under the Gold Dome, and I sincerely hope the Jewish community was proud of my service in the Georgia Senate,” said Adelman, who left when the U.S. Senate confirmed his nomination by President Barack Obama to be the U.S. ambassador to Singapore.
Adelman appreciated not being alone in the legislature. “Liane Levetan and I were in the Senate together for a few years, and I will never forget sitting a few seats away from her in a year when we were in session during Pesach. We shared kosher-for-Passover food and had some great conversations with our colleagues about the meaning of Passover.”
Adelman, who finished his service as ambassador in 2013 and now works in New York as an international trade lawyer focused on Asia, said he was sorry to learn that the number of Jewish legislators has dwindled.
Why is Henson now the lone Jew in the House?
“They don’t run,” she said of her fellow Jews. Henson could not explain the phenomenon in general but suggested that a place such as Sandy Springs, with a significant Jewish population, is well represented by non-Jews.
Levitas speculated that “Jews are involved in community service and choose that path to serving others” and that “Jews make the same calculation that many others do who have served or are thinking of serving, which is that it is very difficult to balance family, work and service in the General Assembly.”
Levetan, a Democrat who served from 2002 to 2004 in the state Senate after serving from 1993 to 2000 as DeKalb County CEO, said a passion for particular issues is necessary, along with the ability to raise the money to campaign and an understanding of the sacrifice of time involved in the job.
To anyone from the Jewish community seeking her advice about running for the General Assembly, Levetan said: “I would ask them first what they have been involved in in the community, in the Jewish community as well as the secular community. Do they have children so they understand education? Do they have the time to put into it? Have they ever been involved in local government, and do they think they have the ability to raise money, to put on an educated campaign — I mean informing constituents of what your platform is?”
Looking to the future, she said, “we’ve got to educate our young people. Our millennials, who seem to be very involved, they need to look at public service and select something that they’re interested in.”
“In a more general sense, without belaboring the issue because I’m no longer involved in policy matters,” Jacobs said, “your life experiences as a Jew and the sensibilities of the Jewish community can have an impact on your views of much broader policy issues.”
He offered advice to any Jews considering a run for the legislature: “While balancing legislative service with the other demands of life can be difficult, it will forever be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. The privilege of speaking on behalf of your community in a legislative body is one of the greatest privileges that a person can be afforded. It would be my hope that any member of the Jewish community who is thinking about running give it a try, and hopefully some time soon Rep. Henson will have a fellow traveler (in the House) once again.”