By Noah Phillips
Jon Ossoff is an unusual candidate in an unusual congressional race. A 30-year-old Democrat, investigative documentarian and former congressional aide, Ossoff is currently leading the crowded field in the special election for Georgia’s sixth Congressional district. The Georgia sixth is in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, and has been represented by Republicans since Newt Gingrich was elected in 1979. Most recently the seat was held by Tom Price, who stepped down to become President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services in February.
Ossoff, who is Jewish, has 17 opponents in Georgia’s jungle primary—10 Republicans, five Democrats and two Independents. He has a strong lead in polls, although that is partially because the Republican vote is spread so thin. If Ossoff can win more than 50 percent of the April 18 primary, he can avoid a runoff and win the election outright—in a runoff, his odds are longer.
As a front-running Democrat in a Republican-leaning district, in the first competitive election since Trump’s, Ossoff has received national attention. The primary has become a bellwether of public support for—or backlash against—the president. Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the Georgia sixth by only 1.5 points in November, and Ossoff’s supporters are hoping that the district’s moderate conservatives may align with Democrats to bring Republicans’ margin in the House of Representatives from 45 to 44.
Ossoff has raised more than $8.3 million, a record twice over—it’s the most money ever raised for a Georgia Congressional campaign, and the most money raised in a single quarter ever by a congressional candidate who didn’t self-fund. More than 95 percent of his donors are from outside of Georgia, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The race has also drawn attention from White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, who told New York Magazine that Ossoff is “running [a] smart campaign” and has a dedicated official tracking the election for him.
Moment spoke to Ossoff during a quiet moment between events. He had just addressed a crowd at an early voting rally in a traffic island outside the DeKalb County polling station, and we sat in his car for a few minutes to chat about his relationship with Judaism.
What is your Jewish background?
My father is the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and Russia who arrived in the U.S. in the early 20th century, with nothing. My mother is an Australian immigrant, who is not Jewish, so prior to my bar mitzvah I entered the mikvah to make it official. I was raised in a Jewish household, went to the Temple, which is a Reform synagogue here in Atlanta, and was bar mitzvah’d and shortly thereafter made my first trip to Israel.
Is your Jewish heritage important to you?
It is. My level of observance, my level of theological certainty, has varied through different phases of my life, but my connection to my heritage as a defining part of my identity has been strong and constant, and I think that the values that were infused in my upbringing by my parents and grandparents and my synagogue—commitment to peace and justice and kindness—still inform how I approach my life every day.
Can you expand on that?
I think that Jews share a story that compels us to approach the world with empathy. Because our story is one of hardship, persecution, perseverance—our story is one which has required us to fight for our freedom and survival, which has required us to find those of other faiths who, with kindness and empathy, have harbored us at other times of great danger. Most Jews, no matter where they live in the world, share an immigrant story. We have been a people on the move. That heritage informs my commitment to a vision of America that is open and decent, kind and respectful. That lives up to our national character as a place that welcomes strivers from afar and those fleeing violence and persecution.
Do you think that your Jewish identity affects how you’re perceived in the district?
I have not sensed so. It’s the northern suburbs of Atlanta, with a significant Jewish population. I’ve never encountered anti-Semitism here personally, but of course there is some complex history. My congregation, the congregation in which I was raised, was bombed in the 1950s. So, there is a history of anti-Semitism here, as there is everywhere. But I’ve encountered none of it, nor any hint of it, in this campaign.
When was the last time you were in a synagogue?
I gave a speech on anti-Semitism recently at Temple Beth Shalom.
What did you say?
I spoke to the perennial requirement in Jewish history to be vigilant. To fight back. And I noted that almost as concerning as the recent increase in anti-Semitism is the apparent hesitation of some of our political leaders to acknowledge and condemn it. I’m concerned about anti-Semitism as an age-old recurring problem, which rears its head at times of uncertainty and insecurity. There’s nothing new about this recent wave, but it is a reminder that we have to remain vigilant, and never rest on the assumption that it won’t rear its ugly head again.
Why do you think you’re getting so much national attention and national energy?
It’s all about grassroots enthusiasm at the local level. This community here in the sixth district, in metro Atlanta, is energized and motivated. So much of the organization and activism is led by women. Jewish women, in many cases. Women in Georgia are demonstrating inspiring courage and commitment to this community, and the leadership of these women has lifted my spirits and helped give me the courage to fight on toward election day.
What’s your favorite Jewish food?
I’m always in the mood for matzah ball soup. Even if it’s 100 degrees outside.