Jewish leaders in Pittsburgh, particularly those in health care and social services, reacted with sadness on Wednesday to the death of U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Some also predicted that Kennedy, who died late Tuesday at his family home in Hyannis Port, Mass., following a long bout with brain cancer, could inspire proponents of health care reform to pass a bill this year.
“Out of respect for him, this will be an impetus for health care reform to happen,” Jewish Healthcare Foundation President Karen Wolk Feinstein said.
Health care was Kennedy’s signature issue, so much so that shortly before his death he wrote to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, urging a change in state law to permit a gubernatorial appointment to the Senate should Kennedy’s seat become vacant. That way, Massachusetts would have two crucial votes when a health care bill came to the floor for a vote.
“I think his presence of course would have been enormously helpful [in passing health care reform],” said Pittsburgh attorney Frederick N. Frank, who knew Kennedy. “I hope that his life would be a inspiration to accomplish this, which was his life’s dream.”
Kennedy, 77, known as the Liberal Lion of the Senate, made several visits to Pittsburgh over his long career. Whether it was on Senate business or a stopover for a fundraiser, though, he left a lasting impression on those who knew him.
“I would have to say I never dealt with anyone more gracious and warm than he was,” said Frank, a longtime treasurer of the Allegheny County Democratic Party who used to raise money for Kennedy’s campaigns.
“What impressed me about my working relationship with the senator was how appreciative and gracious he was for anything I ever did for him. If there were some fundraising event, he personally called me before and I always got a personal handwritten note afterward. I think it spoke to the decency of the human being and how he felt about other people.”
On one occasion, Frank recalled, “I said to him, ‘I’m going to give you the highest compliment I can give you.’ He said, ‘What’s that? And I said, ‘You’re your mother’s son.’ And he said, “That is the highest compliment you can give me.”
Feinstein saw another side to Kennedy when, in 2001, the senator joined a group of Washington dignitaries to visit a JHF-supported demonstration project at the V.A. Medical Center to control a hospital-acquired infection.
Another guest, the secretary of health and human services, “had to have a private driver pick him up and we had to close the busway to get him into town,” Feinstein recalled. “And Sen. Kennedy, who was a much more obvious target for assassination … he didn’t care how he got from the airport. He had no security around him.”
In fact, she said, Kennedy boarded a bus with other visitors that day to get into town.
“He was such a gentleman,” Feinstein said. “He was so warm and very unspoiled.”
Other tributes to Kennedy came in locally and from around the world Wednesday.
Linda Ehrenreich, associate executive director of the Jewish Family & Children’s Service called Kennedy’s death “a great loss to our country and to the Jewish community.
“In so many ways his work as an advocate for the poor and those without any voice reflected Jewish values,” Ehrenreich said. “He worked against great odds for the uninsured, people with disabilities, Soviet dissidents and other vulnerable populations. His voice will be missed not just by the disadvantaged but by those of us working tirelessly in the Jewish nonprofit community toward similar goals.”
Nationally, the Orthodox Union, which presented Kennedy its Friend of the Synagogue Award” in 2001, said it was “grateful” for his support over the years on issues important to the O.U.
“These include promoting religious liberty through the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act; expanding educational opportunity for all America’s children, particularly those with learning disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) and assuring the equitable treatment of students displaced by Hurricane Katrina who relocated to parochial schools; and support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship,” the O.U. statement said.
In Israel, leaders from the political left and right wings lamented Kennedy’s death.
Israeli President Shimon Peres called Kennedy a “great American leader who was also a great friend of the State of Israel,” the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.
It said Peres recalled Kennedy’s 1986 visit to Israel, which the Massachusetts Democrat said was specifically meant to learn about the Jewish state’s health care system.
“He saw already at that time that the health issues are going to be central ones for the American people,” Peres was reported as saying.
And Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said, “Kennedy was a great friend to Israel and the Jewish people. A protector of human rights and member of a prestigious family who stood by Israel’s side in its most trying times in his many years as a member of the Senate.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)