Jewish Pittsburghers from all backgrounds were remembering Arlen Specter this week as a friend of Israel who believed, perhaps by the force of his own personality, he could make a difference in the troubled region.
And, in some important ways, he did.
Specter died Sunday of complications from non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He was 82.
The reigning authority on Capitol Hill of all things related to the Middle East, Specter knew every Israeli prime minister since the 1980s, as well as Arab leaders as moderate as Jordan’s King Hussein and as reviled as Yasser Arafat.
A political maverick who switched parties — twice — during his long career, Specter became a leading Jewish senator, earning praise from Jewish leaders on both ends of the political spectrum.
“I thought he was the embodiment of what a politician should be,” said David Ehrenwerth, a local and national leader in the American Jewish Committee and a friend of Specter’s, who also switched from the Republican to Democratic parties. “He was much more committed to issues, and what he felt was right, than any partisan agenda. He was a man at 80 who had more energy than most people have at 50.”
Likewise, Stuart Pavilack, director of the Zionist Organization of America-Pittsburgh District, remembered the longest serving senator in Pennsylvania history as “dedicated to Israel and the Jewish people.
“At times, I didn’t agree with the path he chose on a particular issue, but there was absolutely no questioning his loyalties,” Pavilack said.
Aside from Israel, Specter proved himself a strong supporter of health care issues long before he first developed cancer, according to Cheryl Moore, chair of the Pittsburgh Council of AIPAC and a member of its national council, and another friend of Specter’s.
She said Specter considered the funding he secured for health care to be one of his greatest legislative achievements.
But it is perhaps his work in the Middle East for which he is best remembered in the Jewish world.
“He was passionately interested in the Mideast and Israel,” said Ehrenwerth, who currently serves as regional administrator, U.S. General Services Administration. “I don’t know of many officials who, when there was a break [in the legislative session] at the end of the year you could count on being in the Middle East.”
Moore recalled how his offices on Capitol Hill were covered with pictures of leaders he had met on his journeys to the region, one of which, to her disapproval, was of Arafat.
“He was very proud of it; he was very proud of meeting with all these people; as much as I tried to tell him he shouldn’t [be proud of Arafat] he was proud to know all these people. He really felt he could make a difference.”
Born Feb. 12, 1930, in Wichita, Kan., the youngest child of Lillie and Harry Specter, Specter grew up in Russell, Kan., where his was the only Jewish family in town, according to his memoir.
He majored in international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1951.
After service in the Air Force from 1951 to 1953, he married Joan Levy in 1953, a woman who would later serve on the Philadelphia City Council. They had two sons together.
Specter graduated from Yale Law School in 1956, and then went into private practice. But he soon gravitated to criminal law and in 1959 became an assistant district attorney.
He rose to national prominence in 1964 as assistant counsel to the Warren Commission, which was investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As assistant counsel, he helped develop the “single bullet theory,” which suggested the death of Kennedy and wounding of Texas Gov. John Connally were caused by the same bullet.
That’s how he eventually came to the attention of another prominent Jewish Pennsylvanian, Dr. Cyril Wecht, a well-known forensic pathologist and longtime Allegheny County coroner, who gave congressional testimony in 1978 disputing Specter’s theory, which he opposed “ferociously.”
These days, though, Wecht remembers Specter, not as an adversary, but as a friend.
“We talked about this many times. Specifically in 2003 we had a huge program at Duquesne University on the 40th anniversary [of the Kennedy assassination] and he was the keynote speaker. We had lined him up for next year for the 50th anniversary. I enjoyed intelligently discussing it with him. Neither of us backed off our stance or analysis, but he became a good friend.”
Wecht went on to endorse Specter for re-election, first in 2004 while he was still a Republican, then again in 2010 when he switched to become a Democrat.
“I appreciated what he meant to Pennsylvania with his 30 years of experience,” Wecht said. “As a freshman senator you have to earn your stripes; so that’s something that doesn’t come overnight, and it meant so much to Pennsylvania, to health care and the academic field.”
Jewish Federation President Jeffrey H. Finkelstein remembered Specter for his support of Federation projects.
“His involvement with creating the NORC program (Naturally Occuring Retirement Community) from the Federal government … brought initial dollars to our community, and that program has evolved into AgeWell Pittsburgh, a collaboration of the JCC, JF&CS and JAA,” Finkelstein said. “It is seen as a true model of collaboration with fabulous results and all started with the help of Sen. Specter.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)