Many Jews choose to be jurists in the United States

Many Jews choose to be jurists in the United States

As the Jewish attorney stood in the courtroom arguing his case, he noted the time on his watch — 4 p.m.
He had informed the judge that morning that he needed to be excused no later than 4 p.m. so he could get home in time for the Sabbath, but when the time arrived, the judge refused to release him.
So instead of riding home that evening, Judge Anne E. Lazarus recalled, “he walked three and half miles [to get home] because he couldn’t take any public transportation.”
It’s a true story, noted Lazarus, a Common Pleas judge in Philadelphia. She added, though, that incidents such as that are quite rare.
Still, they constitute one reason why Lazarus and other Jewish jurists and attorneys co-founded the Louis D. Brandeis Law Society, which promotes the personal and professional interests of Jews in the legal profession.
“There really wasn’t a Jewish association [in Philadelphia] whose mission was to improve the lives of lawyers and judges who identify as Jews,” said Lazarus, who served as the first chancellor of the society. She noted that the Catholic, Irish, Italian and Asian communities in Philadelphia already had law societies of their own.
And though she is not shomer Shabbat (Sabbath observant) herself, Lazarus said she “fought” to make sure all society functions were kosher, even if that meant just having a vegetarian meal.
Jewish law societies exist in other cities, such as Chicago. There is no chapter of the Brandeis Society in Pittsburgh, though Lazarus said some Jewish attorneys are interested in starting one.
Lazarus, who is the only Jewish candidate this year for a statewide judgeship — she is running for the Pennsylvania Superior Court — said her work with the Brandeis society is one way her Jewishness informs her life and steers her career.
(Lazarus’ interview by The Chronicle last week while she visited Pittsburgh, should not be construed as an endorsement. The Chronicle does not make political endorsements.)
Still, Lazarus’ life on the bench reflects the decision by many Jews in American history to become judges, be they a magistrate or a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
In fact Jews may have gravitated to the judgeship in proportions beyond their numbers in American society.
In Philadelphia alone, Lazarus estimated that 15 to 20 percent of the Common Pleas Court is Jewish.
Why is that?
“Judaism is a religion that greatly depends upon the study of law,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.
“Jewish culture for centuries encouraged the study of legal texts and valorized great rabbis who served as legal decisors,” Sarna continued. “In addition, law is a highly portable profession — just right for a people that was so often uprooted and expelled. This background in law helped to shape Jewish occupational patterns throughout modern Jewish history.
“Everywhere we see Jews entering the legal profession — a profession where Jews could also strike out on their own and rise up on the basis of merit,” Sarna added. “Unsurprisingly, some of these Jews moved from arguing law to deciding law. Respected Jews were appointed to state courts already in the 19th century, and moved up to Supreme Court beginning with the appointment of Louis Brandeis.”
Lazarus said the number of Jews in the judgeship reflects an emphasis on education in Jewish households, particularly the households of newcomers to America.
“There were plenty of our ancestors who came to this country without the benefit of a formal education,” she said, “and wanted it for their children.”
But she cited another reason: “Western legal principles are so tied to Jewish legal principles.”
Indeed, halacha (Jewish law) sets out many requirements to be a judge.
“There were plenty of our ancestors who came to this country without the benefit of a formal education,” she said, “and wanted it for their children.”

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at

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