Requiem for Russ

By Ben Sales

  • Print
  • Share Share

Wisconsin’s voters may have rejected Senator Russ Feingold, but he still has a place in the heart of the state’s Jewish community.

Feingold, a Democrat who lives in Middleton, Wisc., lost his seat to Republican businessman Ron Johnson on Nov. 2 and will end his 18-year career as the state’s junior U.S. Senator next month. (Ironically for a state where only one-half of one percent of residents are Jewish, senior senator Herb Kohl is Jewish too.) Feingold grew up with a strong Jewish identity and stayed involved with his state’s Jewish community throughout his career as an elected official, which began with his election to the state senate in 1982.

Surveyed one month after Feingold’s defeat, many Jewish communal leaders in Madison, the state’s capital, said they admired his integrity and principled stances.

“His loss in the election is a great loss to the country, to our state and to the Jewish community,” said Steve Morrison, the outgoing executive director of Madison’s JCC. “He’s a person of deep and committed values, including Jewish values.”

Rabbi Dan Danson of Mount Sinai Congregation, a Reform synagogue in the centrally located city of Wausau, noted that Feingold stuck to those core values even when it made him less popular. “He wasn’t somebody who was bothered by whatever was current, whatever was expedient,” Danson said. “He didn’t back away from positions he had taken that didn’t seem to be playing well.”

Jewish leaders said they especially appreciated Feingold’s fight against the influence of money in politics, exemplified by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act — which he pushed through the Senate with John McCain in 2002. Known to many simply as “McCain-Feingold,” the legislation limited the influence of “soft money” on electoral campaigns. Rabbi Jonathan Biatch, who took the pulpit of Madison’s Temple Beth El — Feingold’s childhood shul — after the senator had moved on to Washington, said that the campaign finance reform act exemplified the senator’s “concern for the individual in the face of the government or in the face of corporations.”

Some Jewish communal leaders, however, are happy to see Feingold go. Nathaniel Sattler, president of the 400-member strong Wisconsin chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition, praised Feingold’s opponent—incoming senator Ron Johnson — for his strong stance on economic issues and his commitment to Israel’s defense.

“As a Republican and a Jewish Republican, I believe that we need to change the direction in economic policy in this country,” Sattler said. “Wisconsin has had two very liberal senators for a very long time. While both of them are Jewish, some of us are Jewish and more conservative, and would like a better representative in Wisconsin of those issues.”

Feingold’s involvement in Jewish life reaches back to his childhood in Janesville, which is close to Illinois’s northern border. Although Janesville had a small Jewish population when Feingold lived there, his parents “were very interested in having us feel part of a larger Jewish community,” said his sister, Rabbi Dena Feingold.

Rabbi Feingold added that her brother was active in B’nai B’rith Youth Organization during his teenage years, eventually reaching the leadership position of Aleph Gadol. Rabbi Feingold said that the Jewish values her brother learned there carried over to his legislative work, as he has been a strong supporter of both Israel and social justice. “Both of us are very influenced by the Reform movement’s connection to universal values and the prophetic call for justice,” she said. “We saw it exemplified in our parents’ activities and in the community.”

Michael Blumenfeld, executive director of the Wisconsin Jewish Conference, a statewide Jewish umbrella organization, also said he saw Feingold as committed to social justice — citing his work on civil rights issues, separation of church and state and care for the elderly and disabled. Blumenfeld added, however, that Feingold’s universalist perspective never kept him from devoting time and attention to individual Wisconsinites, especially young people. Blumenfeld recalled that every year, when he would bring students to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs plenum in Washington, Feingold would make sure to speak with each person in the group. “No matter how busy Senator Feingold was, he would do his best to meet those students,” Blumenthal said. “He always responded to the Jewish community as a whole, but always made sure to make a connection to the younger people in Wisconsin.”

Elana Kahn-Oren, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Milwaukee, appreciated Feingold not only for that individual attention but also because he held positions consonant with the views of many Jews. “He represents a kind of liberal who is reflective of where much of the Jewish community stands,” Kahn-Oren said. “He has been supportive of Israel. He has voted to support the social-service safety net.”

Some Jewish communal leaders do not seem to know much about the incoming senator. Kahn-Oren noted, though, that he holds traditionally pro-Israel stances and that he has connected with AIPAC. Kahn-Oren and Blumenfeld both say they’re looking forward to getting to know him better.

As for Feingold, no one is sure where he will go next. One thing some community leaders do believe is that he leaves an admirable political legacy.

“When we think about Wisconsin history, the last famous Wisconsin junior senator was [Joe] McCarthy,” the infamous anti-Communist, Morrison said. “He brought shame on this state. Many years later, anyone who comments on the junior senator from Wisconsin, they’ll remember Russ Feingold.”

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Russ Feingold, Jonathan Biatch, Ron Johnson

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.