On Inauguration Day, Vice President Kamala Harris swore in two new Senators from Georgia—Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, Georgia’s first Jewish senator. Ossoff was sworn in with a Hebrew Bible in hand that belonged to the late Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, the rabbi of Ossoff’s childhood synagogue.
Janice Rothschild Blumberg, 96, was Rothschild’s wife, and rebitzin of The Temple—once called the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation—the oldest synagogue in Atlanta. She spoke with Moment about Ossoff’s decision to use her late husband’s Hebrew Bible, Ossoff’s Jewish ties and her thoughts for Georgia’s future.
Do you know Senator Ossoff personally?
I don’t, but I had met his mother. She did call me today to thank me for lending her son the Chumash. It wasn’t a bible, but that was too difficult to explain to the public. [The volume was not a complete Hebrew Bible but a Chumash, which contains the five books of Moses.] But he wanted something that was written in Hebrew and the one that my son had contributed was his father’s Chumash so that’s what the senator actually used. I do have a Hebrew and English Bible, but that wasn’t what they wanted. They wanted one that had been my husband’s and there were so few people that knew Hebrew that we didn’t know about a Tanach having both languages. I bought the second one recently so that I could begin to read it.
How did Senator Ossoff obtain the Bible?
The president from our congregation, Kent Alexander, knew that I had those books. I happen to be friendly with his mother but he didn’t know me. He called me, so I offered what I had. He also called my son because he knew that the Ossoffs wanted something that was written in Hebrew. So he picked up both of them and then drove them up to Washington.
He came to pick it up on Sunday night. It was after 10 p.m. and I simply set it downstairs so it would be there when he got here. All of this was rush rush rush, and they were taking off early in the morning for Washington, so I just tried to get things out as fast as possible. He evidently went by my son’s house to get the Chumash and by my building to get the Bible.
So everything did really happen very quickly.
That’s right. I think the relevant thing, the thing that means so much to me, is that the senator wanted this kind of symbolism. He has this sense of symbolism that speaks much louder than any specific word or act.
As the wife of a rabbi of the Atlanta community what was your personal reaction to Ossoff’s swearing-in?
It’s hard for me to answer that. I’m a fifth-generation Georgian, but I had been in Washington for 35 years. Let me say this, all through the campaign I was involved with the JDCA [Jewish Democratic Council of America] and other local organizations who were trying to help the run-off election because of my connection to Dr. Warnock, not because Jon Ossoff was Jewish or belonged to the Temple. It was because of the connection between the Ebenezer Church and the Temple and the fact that the Kings had been such good friends of ours. When I was asked to speak on Zoom for the JDCA just the evening before the runoff election, they wanted me to speak about Dr. Warnock. They weren’t asking me about Ossoff at all. I’m a former Rebetzin of the Temple and I was very friendly personally with Dr. King and Corretta. I said we’re so lucky to have two such wonderful men who share our values, but in addition to the fact that they are very good people, to have both of them win will make all the difference in getting any legislation passed in the future. There were 270 bills clogged up because Mitch McConnell didn’t want to pass them. So I said, what’s really important is that we get both of them in.
People blame both parties for what’s not happening in Congress, and I’m sure that both parties deserve some manner of blame, but what I saw just as an ordinary citizen is that if we can make a tie in the Senate so that the vice president has to be the tie breaker, we will get things passed.
Why do you think that it was important for Senator Ossoff to use Rabbi Rothschild’s Bible?
He has a sense of how much a symbolic gesture means. This is what people remember, what will go on and resonate in the future with people when it’s appropriate. He has this sense of continuity, of reaching to the past. Even though I don’t know him, I can be fairly sure that he knew that by doing something like this, the publicity would go viral, which would ultimately make a statement that would stay in people’s minds.
Do you think that Senator Ossoff was making a Jewish statement, or some other type of statement regarding racial justice because of Rabbi Rothschild’s work with the Black community?
I don’t want to seem as though I’m putting his thoughts out there because I certainly don’t have any knowledge of his thoughts, but I think what he actually accomplished was furthering and emphasizing the connection as far as Black and white is concerned. Just seeing and hearing Senator Warnock and Senator Ossoff tells you all you really ought to know about how far Georgia has come in this generation. Not nearly far enough, but that’s a tremendous step to see the two of them standing together for Georgia. But I feel very pleased that he wanted to add the Jewish side of it—to say it isn’t only kumbaya with Blacks and whites and Jews, and so forth, it’s ledor va’dor. The reason that I think that he used the Rabbi’s book, or at least what it means to me, is to say that our values are going to be passed from generation to generation.