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Requiem for Russ

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.”

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