THE BIG ISLAND, Hawaii — During Josh Green’s childhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, deciphering his heritage for his non-Jewish classmates became a familiar practice. As a state senator in Hawaii, the same responsibility has fallen upon him again.
“I was the only Jewish child in my school growing up and people looked to my family to explain Judaism and the High Holidays to them,” says Green, who grew up Reform and lives in Kailua-Kona in Hawaii, the Big Island. “In Hawaii, there is very little awareness of Judaism and I often feel like I did as a child when I explain our faith to my colleagues.”
Green, a Democrat and the state’s Majority Whip, is among a handful of politicians with Jewish ancestry holding office in the Pacific archipelago. Perhaps Hawaii’s best known Jewish elected official is its former Republican governor, Linda Lingle, now a senior advisor to (non-Jewish) Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner.
Hawaii’s current elected officials with Jewish ties include Democrat state senate incumbent Russell Ruderman and Republican incumbent state senator and Minority Floor Leader Sam Slom. At least two other lawmakers, State Representative Nicole Lowen of Hawaii, the Big Island, and State Senator J. Kalani English of Maui, were both born to Jewish fathers. One more Hawaiian legislator, US Senator Brian Schatz (Dem.) represents the “Aloha State” in Washington, D.C.
“We joke and kibitz, we kid each other a little bit,” Ruderman told The Times of Israel. “We don’t bond specifically in a Jewish way. It’s more of a cultural identity.”
Like many members of the tribe from various backgrounds, these politicians share Jewish culture as a common reference point to varying degrees. Aside from state senator English, nearly all are transplants from the mainland to the Pacific. Each focuses on specific issues in their legislative work, which occasionally looks to Israel for inspiration. Some of them also hold day jobs, with careers spanning from the medical profession to the natural foods industry. And those roles sometimes overlap in ways that fuel their work.
For Green, a health care professional, the overlap between his responsibilities is readily evident.
“I believe people need someone to fight for them who understands their greatest challenges,” says Green, an emergency physician. “I… see people in their times of extreme stress and need. This informs my work as a senator.”
As part of his weltanschauung, Judaism also plays a part in Green’s approach.
“I incorporate my beliefs and my medical work into my role as a legislator — but I do it very privately and am careful to welcome people of all faiths and backgrounds into my efforts to help people,” says Green, who plans to visit his extended family in Haifa in the future with his wife and children.
‘I incorporate my beliefs into my role as a legislator’
With 18 years of service behind him, Slom is the senior statesman among the bunch. He is also the only Republican.
A native of Allentown, Pennsylvania and a University of Hawaii alumnus, Slom grew up Reform and received his law degree from LaSalle University Law School. Until he retired two years ago, he led Smart Business Hawaii, the largest organization for small business in the state.
His involvement in politics dates back to 1996 when he worked on Lingle’s first campaign for governor in which she was defeated by a single percentage point in the closest election in Hawaiian history. She ultimately gained distinction serving two terms as both Hawaii’s first female governor and its first Jewish one from 2002 to 2010. She was also the state’s first Republican elected governor since 1962 when William Quinn left office.
“People used to ask if she was going to outlaw Christmas,” Slom told The Times of Israel. Although he says he initially set these naysayers straight, after a while, he played along. “I told them yes, she was going to outlaw Christmas but was going to institute Chanukah instead and that was better because it’s eight days.”
Despite Slom’s stature as the state’s only Republican among 25 state senators, Ruderman suggests there are many other Conservatives who are registered Democrats “in name only who want to play on the winning team. In any other state, they would be Republicans… There are probably a few Democrats who are more conservative than Sam Slom, the lone Republican.”
While there are no official stats on the state’s number of Jewish residents, the islands are home to a surprising number of Jews.
“There is a fairly healthy Jewish community here even though we don’t have a synagogue,” Ruderman says. “People come here and see no synagogue and think there must be no Jews.”
Ruderman moved to the island from the San Francisco Bay Area 18 years ago. Describing himself as “not secular and not Orthodox,” he occasionally attends events organized by the unaffiliated shul, Kona Beth Shalom, which does not have its own building.
As Jews born in the Holy Land under the British mandate, Ruderman’s parents spoke Hebrew in the young Jewish enclave. Although he last visited Israel when he was 10 with his parents and sister, he would like to return. His Hebrew is “a bit rusty,” he says, but he can speak “k’tzat,” a little.
Ruderman’s Russian grandparents named their daughter Aviva after their adopted city of Tel Aviv. And Ruderman, who is the father of a four-month-old girl with his Filipina American wife, recently carried on the tradition by naming his daughter Aviva.
Ruderman says, “We kept her name alive in that regard.”
Ruderman credits his parents with giving him a strong sense of ethics rooted in Judaism.
‘I carry a certain sense of pride in myself that I won’t bow down in front of anyone but God’
“I carry a certain sense of pride in myself that I won’t bow down in front of anyone but God and that informs the way I conduct my public life,” Ruderman says. “The form it takes is not physically bowing down but not bowing down to bullies who want you to bow down to them. And I feel a strong sense of being ethical in my business and political dealings. My parents taught me their version of Judaism that has a lot to do with treating other people with respect.”
Ruderman moonlights in two bands, a Latin group called El Leo, and a Grateful Dead cover band titled Terrapin Station after a famous Dead song.
A self-described tree-hugging environmentalist liberal, Ruderman also owns a trifecta of successful natural food stores called Island Naturals. Israeli born farmer Michael Manor credits Ruderman for taking a leadership role to assist small farmers.
“Russell Ruderman has done more to help Hawaii’s organic farmers than the whole state Agriculture Department, and it’s not just Russell. It’s also the produce managers in the store,” says Manor, who has been selling his products to Island Natural since the company launched in 1998. “They were instrumental in getting farmers to grow something they can sell and encouraging them.”
Looking to Israel for inspiration with water issues is important to Senator English, who hails from Maui’s lush farm land in Hana.
“Permaculture and desalination are two areas that Hawaii pays close attention to in Israel,” says English, who has served in the Senate since 2000 and visited the Jewish state about a decade ago. “I felt very at home when I visited Israel because I felt a lot of similarities. We have the reverence for those before us and our ancestors and we have this idea that lineage and lineage holders is important.”
English’s mother gave her son to her parents to be raised in Maui, which he described as a common tradition called “hanai,” a form of adoption.
“For Hawaiians, we are very conscious of our background, our ancestry,” says English, who did not know his father, only his mother. “She had to make sure that I understand my father was Russian Jewish. It was never anything hidden.”
Maintaining a sense of her heritage is equally important to Representative Lowen, whose sister is married to an Israeli and maintains joint US and Israeli citizenship. Lowen grew up unaffiliated and moved repeatedly because her father worked in the Foreign Service of the US State Department, a career which inspires her own service in public office.
“We traveled a lot and moved around a lot so I didn’t have a consistent religious upbringing,” Lowen says. “I’m pretty much a secular person on one level but I really identify and know a lot about the history of my Jewish family and it’s always been important to me.”
A native of Long Island, her father shared stories of relatives such as Lowen’s great grandfather, Ernest Jacob “EJ” Wile, who served as the president of Temple Rodeph Shalom in Manhattan — one of the oldest synagogues in the US. Other relatives were lost in the Holocaust.
Born in 1932, her father recalled the war-era and had a first cousin, Gustav, who wrote the family from Germany.
“He sent letters and said things were okay, then not okay, and ‘can you send shoes?’ and then the letters stopped coming,” she recalls.
“I identify with the half of me that’s Jewish but it’s more an identification that we all share with family in Europe that perished in the Holocaust,” Lowen says. “In Hawaii, we are minorities in so many different ways,” she says, pointing to the many Pacific Islanders, Asians and other ethnicities that make up the population.
“There is no majority in Hawaii,” English agrees. “Everyone is a mix and a composite and everyone is very tolerant of each other’s beliefs and lifestyle. That is why Hawaii is such a welcoming and tolerant place.”