Pennsylvania’s first Jewish Legislative Caucus launched
“There is strength in a community of legislators that represent Jewish communities across the commonwealth. I’m gratified that there’s so much interest in the general assembly.”
State Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny) and Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks) announced the formation of Pennsylvania’s first Jewish Legislative Caucus.
In addition to Frankel and Schwank, the caucus includes 20 legislators from nine counties who are either Jewish or connected to Jewish communities through their families or the populations they represent.
Frankel, whose District 23 includes Squirrel Hill, said that it was gratifying to see the number of non-Jewish colleagues who joined the caucus, which he described as an organized group of legislators who identify strongly with the Jewish community.
“The more the merrier,” he said, “and the more effective. If you’re willing to identify as part of our caucus, we want you to be a part of it.”
Frankel said that Pennsylvania needs people stepping up to defend the Jewish community and other vulnerable groups targeted by hate speech.
“I think that’s the prime platform for what this caucus will do,” he said. “It’s another organized voice to counter such disturbing trends we see in our state, in our communities and around the country.”
In addition to fighting antisemitism and countering hate speech, other items on the caucus’s platform include:
• Working to protect the civil rights of Pennsylvanians
• Modernizing Pennsylvania’s laws to address the growing threat of hate crimes
• Improving security measures for organizations predominately serving Jewish communities and other vulnerable
communities at risk for hate-based violence
• Celebrating Jewish culture and heritage in Pennsylvania
• Acting as a liaison to local, state and national organizations serving Jewish populations and communities
• Providing a structure and organization for caucus members to coordinate advocacy for caucus goals
The 22 members of the caucus represent nearly 10% of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly, made up of 203 members of the House of the Representatives and 50 state senators.
That number doesn’t surprise Frankel, who said that he has talked with general assembly members for some time about forming a caucus. In addition to the legislative support the caucus received, Frankel said that Gov. Josh Shapiro is excited about the new coalition.
“He’s indicated that he wants to host us at the governor’s mansion at some point,” Frankel said. “It’s something which we probably should have done earlier, but in this environment, it’s very reassuring that it’s so popularly supported.”
Democratic whip Rep. Dan Miller (D-Allegheny) said he joined the caucus after ensuring that his participation was warranted. Miller, who isn’t Jewish, represents District 42, which includes Mt. Lebanon, Dormont and Upper St. Clair. According to the 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, 20% of wider Pittsburgh’s Jewish community lives in the South Hills.
Miller was quick to join the caucus when he discovered that because of the community he represents, he was able to, he said.
“I’m blessed to have two big synagogues here and right outside my district,” he said. “The Jewish community is a big part of my work, and I’m honored to have that sort of connection.”
Rep. Abigail Salisbury (D-Allegheny) won the District 34 seat in a February special election. She noted that she is the only Jewish woman in the House.
The caucus, she said, is important because society “defaults to Christian culture.”
“It’s important to make sure that people of all religions have civil rights in the state of Pennsylvania,” she said, “and make sure that everyone is protected. When you have a society that fosters antisemitism, you also have a society that would foster other kinds of prejudice.”
Salisbury said that she’s pleased that non-Jewish general assembly members joined the caucus and want to stand up as allies to the Jewish community.
“It’s really wonderful that people are supported that way,” she said.
There are tentative plans to introduce a hate crimes package at the end of April, Frankel said, adding that the caucus formation was overdue and something he wishes could have been done sooner.
“There is strength in a community of legislators that represent Jewish communities across the commonwealth,” he said. “I’m gratified that there’s so much interest in the general assembly.”
The Chronicle reached out to Sen. Jay Costas (D-Allegheny), who has also joined the coalition but did not receive a response by the time this story went to press. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at [email protected]