When Massachusetts Senator John Kerry learned last year that his paternal grandparents in 19th-century Austria had converted to Catholicism from Judaism, one of the first people he called was his younger brother, Cameron.
The younger Kerry was surprised.
In an interview at John Kerry’s New York headquarters last Friday, Cameron Kerry told the Forward that his family had “an inkling” that they had a Jewish grandmother, but no “concrete” evidence. Furthermore, he said, his grandparents’ conversion, which was discovered by the Boston Globe, struck him as “ironic.” The younger Kerry, 53, had converted to Judaism from Catholicism in 1983, upon marrying a Jewish woman, Kathy Weinman.
Cameron Kerry, who lives in Boston, was in New York last weekend politicking for his brother in advance of the March 2 New York Democratic primary. One of the campaign’s most public faces in the Jewish community, he spent the Sabbath at Manhattan synagogues and stayed in local homes. On Sunday, he and his brother met with some 40 Jewish communal leaders in Manhattan at a gathering that got glowing reviews in the next day’s newspapers. The candidate impressed attendees with his knowledge of Middle Eastern affairs and his emotional grasp of the issues. He also got a chance to correct an earlier faux pas, in which he had suggested naming two figures who are unpopular with the Jewish community — former secretary of state James Baker and former president Carter — as possible envoys to the Middle East.
“It was Cam’s doing to bring that together and make that happen,” said Alan Solomont, a Jewish philanthropist and fund-raiser for Senator Kerry who attended the meeting. “He understood the importance of John getting in front of the community… of showing his incredible intellectual depth.”
Cameron Kerry, who said his brother was “supportive” of his decision to convert, has given the senator some first-hand experience with Judaism. Kerry and his wife have raised their two daughters in the Reform tradition, with baby namings and bat mitzvahs. John Kerry attended those functions as a treasured uncle, and while he hasn’t celebrated Jewish holidays such as Passover with the family, “he has been to Shabbat dinner,” Cameron Kerry said. So, in a historical first, the probable Democratic presidential nominee not only possesses Jewish roots — and, it was discovered last week, relatives who died in Nazi death camps — but some Jewish family experiences.
In a campaign that heralds a “band of brothers,” namely the fellow veterans who have flocked to the war hero’s camp, it seems fitting that the candidate’s biological brother would figure prominently. The brothers are close, so close in fact that the younger Kerry has served as one of his sibling’s chief counselors and strategists on all of his campaigns, from his unsuccessful run for Congress in 1972 through some tough subsequent contests. His role as political strategist has turned Cameron Kerry into a story in his own right more than once.
In 1972, in what the family says was a “setup,” he was arrested for having broken into a building that housed the campaign’s phone lines. A caller had tipped him off to the threat that an opponent would cut the lines, but the police caught Cameron Kerry instead.
A recent New York Times profile examined Kerry’s role in the axing of Jim Jordan, his brother’s popular campaign manager, comparing him to the late Robert Kennedy, who gained a reputation for ruthlessness as John Kennedy’s campaign manager in the 1960 presidential campaign.
James Segel, a Boston Democratic activist who has known Kerry for 30 years, laughed at the comparison.
“Cam is tough, but he doesn’t give the impression of being ruthless,” Segel said. “I would not compare him in style to the Bob Kennedy of the 1960 campaign. As confidant to the candidate, there’s a comparison there. John Kennedy had 110% confidence in Bob, and John Kerry has 110% confidence in Cam.”
Segel and others describe the younger Kerry as his brother’s eyes and ears on the campaign, “kind of quiet” and “not obtrusive” but with “very good political judgment.”
“He gives good, honest advice to his brother, and that’s rare, because too often people tell the candidate what they want to hear,” Segel said.
A more apt comparison than the Kennedys might be to another dynamic duo, Batman and Robin. The younger Kerry looks like a boyish version of his 60-year-old brother, who stands several inches taller and whose features are craggier. He speaks about Senator Kerry in terms Robin might have used for the caped crusader, too.
“There’s nobody I want more by my side in a tough situation than my brother,” Kerry said. “That’s what his crewmates have seen, and that’s what more and more and more people have seen in this country as this campaign has unfolded.”
The Kerry campers and others consulted for this article all praised Cameron Kerry as a thoughtful, self-effacing, gentle man. He’s even a hero to his rabbi. Rabbi Ronne Friedman of Temple Israel of Brookline, Mass., recounts how last year Kerry’s family took the lead in the class project of his daughter’s b’nei mitzvah class, to build a playground for an urban school in Roxbury. The family helped raise money, worked with the parents of the school and assembled dozens of volunteers for the construction, according to Friedman.
“He’s present in the pew with regard to worship, and whenever time allows has been a student,” Friedman said. “He’s genuinely an intellect and has an interest in Judaism from an intellectual point of view.”
Kathy Weinman Kerry is a member of the synagogue’s board and its ritual committee.
Cameron Kerry’s Jewish connections also extend to his business life, and have paid off for John Kerry. A telecommunications lawyer, Kerry works at a Boston-based firm, Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo, although he has taken a leave to work on the campaign. While Mintz Levin is now a diverse, 450-lawyer shop, it was once known as the “Lox et Veritas” firm — a play on the Yale motto “Lux et Veritas” — having been founded in 1933 by Jewish lawyers “who weren’t entirely accepted at white-shoe firms,” Kerry said. The firm, which built itself up as counselors to the Jewish entrepreneurs of Boston, even now has a big business in helping Israeli high-tech entrepreneurs gain access to American markets.
Kerry has made rain handsomely for his brother at Mintz Levin. Employees of the firm have emerged as the second-largest source of contributions to the candidate in this election cycle, providing a total $113,500 in contributions, according to the Web site of the Center for Responsive Politics.
The younger Kerry describes the campaign fund raising in the Jewish community as “very strong,” thanks to the efforts of Solomont, national campaign finance chairman Louis Susman and Denver fund-raiser Ron Brownstein.
As a strategist, Cameron Kerry said, the decision of which he is most proud was “to shift gears from being a national campaign to focus on Iowa.”
John Kerry’s surprise win there started the momentum that has carried his candidacy forward to the point where it appeared to have locked up the Democratic nomination after wins in 9 of the 10 states that voted this week.
But Cameron Kerry may have another role: humanizing the John Kerry often pilloried by the press as stiff and aloof. Kerry said he doesn’t recognize that figure.
“He’s somebody with very intense personal relationships,” he said of the senator. “You can see on this campaign, it’s impressive the number of people who have intense loyalties going back a lot of years. It’s a reflection of the deeply loyal relationships he has.”
One relationship in particular.