One is a nice-guy educator with a master’s in divinity from Harvard who beat a 26-year GOP incumbent. Another is an heir to the Levi Strauss fortune who went from cable-news talking head to lead counsel for the first House impeachment of Donald Trump. Another was labeled the “master of disaster” as Florida’s state emergency services director, a rare Democratic appointee of Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Meet the new Jewish members of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 118th Congress. They number five in a freshman class of 74 representatives. Four are Democrats, one a Republican. What impact they will have in a GOP-majority House remains to be seen. But their varied backgrounds are illustrative of the many paths Jews are taking to the halls of Congress in the 21st century.
Our guiding light on this story is the Pew Research Center’s compilation of congressional members’ religious preferences. They calculate 24 Jewish representatives overall—22 Democrats and 2 Republicans.
Designations are largely self-reported, meaning members are not counted as Jewish unless they say they’re Jewish. In counting up the number of Jews, Pew did not include Republican Anna Paulina Luna of Florida (also a freshman), who describes herself as “Messianic Jewish.” (Think “Jews for Jesus.’) And forget about New York Republican George Santos, who seems to lie about everything in his life including his supposed Jewish links.
The five Jewish newcomers to the House are:
DANIEL GOLDMAN, D-NY
Goldman is arguably the highest-profile name among the five. With a net worth just over $250 million and a full name of Daniel Sachs Goldman, you’d think his fortune comes from roots in the famous Wall Street firm. But no, he is actually heir to the Levi Strauss & Co. fortune. (His great-grandfather, Walter Haas, was longtime president and board chairman of the blue-jeans giant.)
But Goldman has fashioned his life as that of a workhorse more than a show horse. A federal prosecutor in Manhattan, he went after the Russian mafia, the Genovese crime family and Wall Street inside traders. He raised his profile subsequently as a legal analyst for NBC and MSNBC, and upped it as counsel for Democrats in the first House impeachment of President Donald Trump—the one that focused on Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urging him to announce an investigation of now-President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Before declaring his candidacy last year, Goldman, who is 46, was not well-known in the hybrid 10th congressional district that straddles lower Manhattan and a good chunk of Brooklyn. It has the largest percentage of Jews (37.6 percent) of any congressional district nationwide, attributable to its inclusion of Borough Park, which is heavily Hasidic. Goldman himself was raised Conservative and is married to a woman who is Modern Orthodox. He is pro-Israel and anti-BDS, and made a point of reaching out to ultra-Orthodox voters. He was endorsed by more than two dozen Hasidic groups.
Goldman pumped $5 million into his own campaign, blanketing the city with TV ads. He won the primary and then handily beat his Republican opponent in the general election. He wasted no time in establishing his profile on Capitol Hill, going with Democratic Representative Ritchie Torres of the Bronx to leave a copy of the complaint they filed with the House Ethics Committee regarding George Santos at Santos’s office. The media-savvy Goldman made sure TV cameras were there to record every second of it.
MAX MILLER, R-OHIO
Miller, a former White House and campaign aide to ex-President Donald Trump, may well be the bad boy of the House Jewish freshman class. The lone Republican among the five, he won in a district south of Cleveland that was reconfigured to favor Republicans. Two GOP House members who had represented the district retired—one of them, former Representative Anthony Gonzalez, made himself a MAGA target by voting to impeach Trump the second time in the wake of the January 6, 2021, insurrection. Miller won Trump’s endorsement last year, which cleared his path to Capitol Hill. (Incidentally, no relation to Trump’s better-known aide Steven Miller, who is also Jewish.)
A former Marine, Miller, 34, won despite a reputation for arrogant and abusive behavior dating back to his high school days. The scion of a wealthy Cleveland-area real estate family, Miller had several run-ins with the law for youthful speeding, underage drinking and disorderly conduct, according to a story in POLITICO. More recently, Trump press secretary Stephanie Grisham wrote in her memoir that she was physically assaulted by a Trump aide, whom she was dating. Although Grisham did not mention his name, Miller was the target of her accusation. Miller filed a defamation suit against her.
But none of that derailed Miller’s campaign. He beat his Democratic opponent handily on a platform of opposition to teaching “critical race theory” in schools, an “America First” foreign policy, opposition to the two-state solution in the Middle East, and cutting inflation through reduced government spending and lower taxes.
Miller endorsed Trump’s bid to reclaim the White House and still believes Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen. But he’s been careful to put a bit of distance between himself and the former president. He supported House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, whose leadership bid was stonewalled by ultra-right House members.
In an interview with the Cleveland Jewish News, Miller said he wanted to be “the largest Jewish voice in Congress on the Republican side.” He said the two-state solution advocated by the Biden administration is “a threat to the State of Israel.” In the interview, he also said antisemitic rapper Ye—Kanye West—“doesn’t need to keep walking this path.” But he declined to criticize Trump for dining with West and another antisemite, Nick Fuentes. Miller is the nephew of Middle East scholar Aaron David Miller.
GREG LANDSMAN D-OH
Cincinnati holds a prominent position in American Jewish history. The first Jewish settler arrived in 1817 from Germany, and for decades Jews joined Germans in making Cincinnati a point on the “German Triangle” that also included Milwaukee and St. Louis. By the middle of the 19th century, it was the oldest and largest Jewish community west of the Alleghenies. And it was ground zero for the Reform movement, with Hebrew Union College opening there in 1875.
So it is no surprise that Democratic Representative Greg Landsman’s Jewish identity was more of an afterthought than an issue in his campaign to unseat 26-year GOP veteran Steve Chabot in Ohio’s 1st district (Cincinnati and nearby suburbs). Landsman, 46, was one of just a few Democrats who benefited from the Ohio legislature’s GOP-friendly redistricting. With his nice-guy smile undergirding a shaved head, he was a stark contrast to curmudgeonly Chabot, now 70. (Chabot rode the Newt Gingrich “Contract with America” wave in 1994 that flipped the House to Republicans for the first time in 42 years.)
Landsman billed himself as a “former public school teacher,” even though he taught Spanish for just a year in 2001, two years after graduating college. He went on to earn a graduate degree from the Harvard Divinity School and returned to Cincinnati, where he worked in the education nonprofit sector. His main achievement was spearheading Cincinnati’s pre-school education program for three- and four-year-olds. He won a seat on Cincinnati’s city council in 2017 and was into his second term when he entered the race against Chabot.
The campaign crossfire was intense. Chabot attacked Landsman as a tax-and-spend liberal in the pocket of now ex-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (for whom Landsman briefly worked). A Republican PAC accused him of wanting to defund the police, a charge Landsman denied. Landsman in turn attacked Chabot for his anti-abortion stance and a series of House votes including opposition to a cap on insulin prices and opposition to the bipartisan infrastructure spending package. The infrastructure bill included money for rebuilding Brent Spence Bridge, the main artery across the Ohio River connecting Cincinnati to northern Kentucky—a crucial issue in the region.
Judaism was not much of a factor in Landsman’s construction of his political persona during the campaign. But Chabot’s vote against certifying electors just hours after the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol (plus the anti-democratic drift of ultra-right Republicans) prompted Landsman to put his Jewish background out front. “As a Jew, I know how this ends, I also know how this starts,” Landsman told Cincinnati CityBeat. “It starts with book bans, it starts with people’s votes being thrown out, and honestly, it does start with people attacking the legislature. That’s what happened in Germany—they burned the Reichstag [government building] down.” Landsman has joined the New Democrat Coalition, the main alliance of moderate Democrats in the House.
BECCA BALINT D-VT
For a largely rural state not normally associated with Jewish-American migratory patterns, Vermont has had more than a fair share of Jewish political leadership in the past 40 years. Madeleine Kunin, whose parents escaped from Nazi Germany to Switzerland, was Vermont’s governor from 1985 to 1991—not only the first Jew but the first woman to hold the office in Vermont (and the first Jewish woman governor in the United States). And Brooklyn-born Bernie Sanders went from mayor of Burlington to the U.S. House of Representatives to the U.S. Senate, a position he still holds at age 81. The new Jewish face occupying Vermont’s political stage is Becca Balint. The 54-year-old won election last November to the seat occupied by Sanders from 1991 to 2007, before his move to the Senate. Like Kunin and Sanders and many other Vermonters by choice, she is a “flatlander”—a vaguely derisive term for someone not native to Vermont. (“Flatlanders,” in turn, call Vermont natives “woodchucks.” The back-and-forth appears to be more comical than offensive.)
Raised in Peekskill, New York, she initially moved to Vermont in 1994, first as a rock-climbing instructor who later became a middle school teacher. Balint has earned a lot of “firsts” in her short political career—first woman House member from Vermont, and before that first woman president pro tem of the Vermont State Senate. And with her election, Vermont is no longer the only state not to send a woman to Congress. She also is the first LGBTQ person in most or all of the same categories. She and her wife, Elizabeth Wohl (a lawyer), were married in 2009 after Vermont legalized same-sex marriage. They have two children. Balint plans to commute from DC back to their home in Brattleboro on weekends.
What sets Balint apart from other Jews in Congress, newcomers and veterans alike, is the long shadow the Holocaust has cast on her life. Her Hungarian-Jewish grandfather, Leopold Balint, died toward the end of the war on a forced march away from the Mauthausen concentration camp. He stopped to help a fellow prisoner who had fallen down from exhaustion. Balint and her family believe he knew he would be shot, along with the person he was helping—he did it anyway. The Nazis killed both of them.
Her father, Peter, an infant at the time, emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1957. Her grandmother received reparations from the German government. “That trauma really colored a lot of my childhood,” the congresswoman said in an interview with the Vermont Business Journal. “If the phone rang while we were eating dinner, my dad would get very anxious about who was calling the house. Or if people stopped by unannounced. He did not want information about our family to be out in the public. His family had been betrayed by neighbors. And it didn’t feel so far-fetched that we could be back there again.”
Balint announced her candidacy for Vermont’s lone House seat almost a year after the riot at the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trumpers aiming to prevent Congress from certifying the election of President Joe Biden. From the start, she connected the overall impact of the Holocaust and the horror that befell her grandfather to the need to bolster democracy against its enemies. “I know what can happen when we turn away from each other,” she intoned over a picture display of Leopold Balint as part of a campaign ad. “My grandfather was murdered on a death march in the Holocaust. I grew up with the knowledge that people can be led astray when they’re scared.”
She won the Democratic primary against the state’s lieutenant governor. And in true-blue Vermont, the primary win virtually guaranteed victory against her Republican opponent in the general midterm election. Kunin, almost 90, endorsed Balint’s opponent. But Sanders endorsed Balint and actively campaigned for her. Balint won as a left-wing Bernie-style progressive. Her campaign website stressed her state Senate fights for paid parental leave, increased minimum wage, reproductive freedom and her belief in “healthcare for all” (government single-payer or Medicare for all). Democratic Representative Pramila Jaypal of Washington State, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, endorsed her. But Balint does part company with many House progressives in her opposition to BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) against Israel. “I think it’s counterproductive,” she told the Times of Israel.
Balint’s father is Jewish but her mother is not. The same is true for her wife, Elizabeth Wohl. But the couple is raising their two kids as Jews, making challah on Friday night, lighting candles and singing the blessings. She thinks about conversion, which would formalize her Jewish identity. “(I’ve) come to understand that while the history and culture of Judaism is very important to me, I’m not drawn to organized religion,” she told the Vermont Business Journal.
JARED MOSKOWITZ, D-FL
Just three weeks after a gunman murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February of 2018, Democratic State Representative Jared Moskowitz (himself a graduate of the school) rose on the floor of the legislature and spoke in favor of a wide-ranging measure on gun safety. In an emotion-laden voice punctuated by long pauses, Moskowitz recounted how his 4-year-old son, Sam, was learning to improve on writing his name with a teacher, Jennifer Guttenberg, when shots rang out around the corner at the high school.
Guttenberg “lost her daughter Jamie while she was teaching my son how to write,” Moskowitz said. He was choked up and stifled tears to finish the speech. “She put my kid in a closet when her daughter died,” Moskowitz said. He told the hushed chamber he wanted to thank Jennifer Guttenberg at her daughter’s funeral “but I didn’t know how to do that.” He came to believe that the best way of doing so was securing passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act.
The law passed and was signed by then Republican Governor Rick Scott. It was a remarkable achievement in increasingly red Florida. Although it did not include an assault-weapons ban favored by gun-safety advocates, it did raise the handgun purchase age from 18 to 21 and mandated a three-day waiting period for gun purchases (allowing time for thorough background checks).
Almost five years later, Moskowitz is the new House member for the district in and around the Douglas high school campus. The region has been transformed by the influx of Cubans, Haitians, Puerto Ricans and other Latinos from South and Central America. Nevertheless, the Florida “Gold Coast” has, of course, been a center of Jewish population for decades; the district Moskowitz represents is 15 percent Jewish.
Moskowitz is married to Leah Rifkin Moskowitz, a marketing manager for a publisher of scholarly journals and books. They have two sons. Jared started down the political trail early on, as an intern for then Vice President Al Gore, to whom he bears a resemblance (if you can look past Gore’s blow-dry and replace it with Moskowitz’s faux hawk.
He worked on former Connecticut Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman’s 2004 presidential campaign and served as a Florida elector for President Barack Obama in 2004.
Today, Jared Moskowitz’s political calling card is less focused on his Jewish background than on his success with gun legislation and his service as director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management under Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. Yes, that’s right, DeSantis, who aspires to replace Trump as the Republican Party’s rightwing leader, picked Moskowitz in 2018 to lead the state’s crucial agency for responding to hurricanes and natural disasters. As things turned out, Moskowitz was less concerned with hurricanes than the state response to the COVID wave of 2020. (The media dubbed him “Master of Disaster.”)
While DeSantis drew criticism for, among other things, reopening Florida too soon and even chastising young students standing next to him on a podium for wearing masks, Florida got relatively good marks for a rapid rollout of its vaccine programs and prioritizing the state’s large senior citizen population. Moskowitz had a hand in making sure the state’s home-bound population of 750 Holocaust survivors got vaccinated early on.
In his congressional campaign, Moskowitz touted his resume and willingness to work across the aisle as selling points. Nevertheless the race against Republican Joe Budd was close, 51 percent to 47 percent. How and if Moskowitz will make a mark on Capitol Hill is far from clear. Like most other Democrats, he has called out George Santos for the lies he told about his background prior to the election, particularly those about his connection to Holocaust victims.
“The idea that there is someone who now serves in Congress who…would come up with a lie that…his grandparents escaped one of the world’s greatest tragedies—” he said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “It’s just the lowest form of humanity.”
With Republicans in control of the House, the chances of more gun-related legislation are few. Like Landsman of Ohio, Moskowitz joined the centrist New Democrat Coalition. He is vying for a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. (The Democratic lineup for committees has not yet been announced.) Israel will be a prime topic if he gets a seat on the committee. For the moment, Moskowitz said he’s withholding judgment on Israel’s emerging governing coalition, which appears set to include several far-right members in influential positions.
“We know who the players are in the makeup and we know some of the previous history there. Let’s see how it all shakes out before we start passing judgment,” Moskowitz told the Jewish Insider. “We’ll have to work through those issues. We shouldn’t be interfering in [Israel’s] domestic politics.”