Joe Lieberman carried his faith publicly, gracefully


Like so many, I was sad to hear of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman’s passing. Fortunately, I had personal reasons to invoke the Jewish response to such news: Baruch Dayan emet (bless the righteous judge).

Although his prefix was senator, because that’s the highest political rank he achieved, his highest rank in life was Ganze Mensch, a whole person who exhibits the finest human qualities. And just as he maintained his menschlichkeit (his status as a mensch) to the peak of his formidable accomplishments, his largesse was not reserved for power brokers and influencers.

I first met Senator Lieberman while in law school during an internship at the Connecticut Legislature. I worked for the Courant’s Don Noel, who was, at the time, a highly respected political reporter. One of my daily tasks was to ask legislative leaders what was hot and what was not. Joe, as he insisted I call him, was the Senate majority leader. Each day he greeted me by name and with a smile and handshake. Then he schooled me on the day’s politics. I never felt rushed even when he was obviously rushed. I learned so much at his feet as he explained the innerworkings, both professional and personal, of the legislative process.

Political leaders mourn Connecticut’s Joseph Lieberman. ‘May he rest in peace’

Joe’s in-laws from his first marriage lived in West Hartford. When he visited for the Sabbath, he walked to my synagogue, Beth David, to pray. After services he always took time to catch up with me even though surrounded by ardent admirers. Our paths often crossed when he was attorney general, and I was an appellate prosecutor for the Division of Criminal Justice. Regularly, he made a point to note a prominent case I had argued, especially in those areas of the law in which the two offices shared an interest.

Years later, I was in DC for a conference when Joe was in the mourning period for his beloved mother. I went to the early Sabbath service at his Washington synagogue Keshet Israel. When I was about to leave, I ran into his wife, Hadassah, and introduced myself. I asked for Joe because I wanted to offer my condolences. She directed me upstairs to the main service. There was Joe, with his full beard of mourning, sitting directly across from the open sanctuary entrance. As I approached, two ushers blocked my path. Joe saw me and waved me forward. I’m not sure he remembered my name because he had traveled lofty roads since we last interacted. Nevertheless, he knew immediately that I was someone familiar and greeted me warmly.

Joe’s greatest impact on me, however, was not during our personal interactions but how he carried himself as an observant Jew throughout his meaningful high-profile life. Joe wore his Orthodox Judaism publicly and gracefully. After law school, as I evolved both professionally and religiously, Joe Lieberman did for me what Sandy Koufax did for a prior generation when he refused to pitch in a World Series game on Yom Kippur.

What Koufax did that one day, Joe did every day. He set a luminous example of blending religious observance with life in the real world. Because Senator Joe Lieberman observed Judaism openly and proudly, I could observe without fear of backlash. Because Senator Joe Liberman sought accommodation for his religious beliefs, so could I. Joe inspired me by making it easier to choose an observant life. In turn, he empowered me to set an example for my daughters. For this, my family owes Joe Lieberman our eternal gratitude.

Rest in peace Senator Lieberman, Joe. Thank you for taking me under your wing when you did. And bless you for the incredible example you set as a Jewish-American statesman. Those who knew you will remember with fondness and admiration your wisdom, thoughtfulness, and menschlichkeit, especially now that the world needs these qualities desperately.

Harry Weller lives in West Hartford.

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