As Kamala Harris made history on Tuesday becoming the first woman and first person of color to be Vice President, she also handed Senator Chuck Schumer of New York with a prize of his own — becoming the first Jew to serve as Senate Majority Leader. The Senate is split 50-50 and Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are expected to settle on a power-sharing agreement, but Democrats will control the majority because of Harris’s role as a tie-breaking vote.
In his debut speech as leader, Schumer said that he sees his role as “an awesome responsibility” as “a descendent of victims of the Holocaust.”
For those watching Schumer on the C-SPAN feed on Wednesday, the first thing coming to mind is the story Schumer has repeatedly told Jewish audiences across the country during the past two decades.
The story happened in 1992. Then-Congressman Schumer met with constituents in Queens, after his seat was redistricted to include parts of the borough, when a woman came up to him and complimented him for having ‘more courage than any’ of the other members of Congress. A humbled, but surprised, Schumer inquired what made him so unique out of 435 members. The woman said that she watches C-SPAN religiously and every time he rises up to speak on the House floor, ‘you have the courage to wear a yarmulke.’ The New York lawmaker laughed and told the woman that she probably mistook his bald spot for a yarmulke since she’s never seen him in person.
Since that incident, which he gleefully recounts at the start of his remarks at Jewish events, Schumer rose through the ranks, from previously serving in the State Assembly to defeating former Sen. Al D’Amato in 1998 and later succeeding Sen. Harry Reid as Senate Minority Leader. On Tuesday, Schumer reached his dream position — becoming the highest politically ranking Jew in American history.
“It should be a point of pride for the Jewish community to have one of our own serve as majority leader,” said Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, a Democrat from Queens who worked closely with Schumer over the last decade. “It’s a point of naches.”
Stu Loeser, a New York campaign consultant who served as Schumer’s communications director in the early 2000s, said in an interview that while the neighborhood that Schumer first represented in Congress was at the start evenly divided between the Jewish and Catholic communities, it became more diverse and multiracial over the years. That inspired Schumer to “work hard” to broaden his outreach.
Loeser said that as a member of Congress, Schumer ordered his staff to find places that were facing similar issues that New York was facing and to build alliances with other members — at times across the aisle — to work together to find solutions to the issues that mostly mattered to their constituents. Loeser added that in the position that Schumer now holds, along with a Democratic-controlled House and with President Joe Biden in the White House, he will be able to deliver to his caucus. He’ll also put Republicans in a position that it “will make it harder for them to turn down the opportunity to pass legislation that benefits their constituents” because then they will be putting “party over their own community.”
Schumer’s former aides and community leaders also expressed their confidence that the issues New Yorkers and the Jewish community care about will always be a top priority.
Schumer “is a workhorse and the hardest working man in politics,” Rozic said. “When you think of Chuck Schumer, you think of a typical New Yorker. He doesn’t back down when it comes to the needs of New York, particularly in times of hardship.”
Schumer has already promised to continue his annual tradition of visiting all of New York’s 62 counties. Loeser suggested that Schumer is “really good at getting people to pay attention to him,” but he will still remain “the same dad from New York City that he’s always been.”
Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s executive director for public policy, noted that Schumer has engaged with leaders of the community — most recently on COVID relief and for security grants for nonprofit organizations and for Jewish day schools in New York. “We couldn’t have done it without Senator Schumer,” Diament said. “He was rightly very proud of having served the community in this way, and that’s the best testament to what kind of leader he is for the Jewish community.”
Rabbi Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said his expectations are that Schumer “will utilize the influence and power that he has to do good things for the American people, for the Jewish community, for the State of Israel and for Jews around the world.”
Jacob Kornbluh is the Forward’s senior political reporter. Follow him on Twitter @jacobkornbluh or email email@example.com.
Community takes pride in seeing Schumer become the highest politically ranking Jew in America