Jews may be “People of the Book,” but Congressman Jamie Raskin (D – Md.) believes in putting words into action to help make the world a better place. That was one of the messages the new representative for Maryland’s 8th District had for the packed audience at Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim in Silver Spring, Maryland, on Sept. 23, Shabbat Shuva.
The former American University law professor and veteran Maryland state legislator said he could have chosen to become a rabbi, but chose a different road of public service.
And he never looked back: Raskin was elected as a Maryland state senator for District 20 in November 2006, representing parts of Silver Spring and Takoma Park. In 2012, he was named the majority whip for the Maryland State Senate and chairman of the Montgomery County Senate Delegation. For the past nine months since his election to Congress, he has applied his 25 years of academic teaching expertise to teach his colleagues about the U.S. Constitution.
Raskin said his family, Jewish studies, and Jewish values have helped shape his life and work. He is a strong proponent of liberal issues. “My grandfather influenced me a lot. He was the first Jew ever elected in the Minnesota Legislature,” Raskin said. “He witnessed firsthand social injustice. In his day, Jews were not allowed to join some civic clubs.”
Public service runs in the DNA of his family. Besides his grandfather, Raskin’s great uncle worked as a judge in Wisconsin. His wife, Sarah, served as a member of the Federal Reserve Board before President Obama nominated her as deputy secretary of the U.S. Treasury.
Raskin said he learned one guiding principle in life early on from Hillel, the Jewish sage.
“Hillel said, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me; and if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, then when?’” Raskin said. “Hillel tells us that we are all parts of the world and we need to take care of one another like brothers. That has shaped my view of the world — we all depend on one another.”
He said the recent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and President Trump’s order to rescind the DACA program — which protects hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors from deportation — should remind us of “the danger of social injustice.”
“There is a lot of social injustice and discrimination in the world. We should be kind to others and strangers. This was the story of my people. The story of the Exodus is a reminder that we should not oppress the stranger, for we were once strangers in a strang land. This was the story of my people. I always feel a deep sense of pride.” He added that America is the land of the free and should be a land for “all, and not just for some.”
When Raskin finished his speech, Shamai Leibowitz, the Torah reader at Har Tzeon, who was a constitutional law student under Raskin at American University, praised the congressman as someone who doesn’t live in an ivory tower.
“One year as I was driving on the road, I noticed this guy holding a big cardboard sign standing with other protesters,” said Leibowitz. “I asked myself, ‘I think I know this guy. He is my professor.’ Jaime is one who doesn’t just talk and teach. He actually practices what he teaches.”
Raskin was the first among a number of political and civil leaders in Har Tzeon’s new monthly speaker series and yearlong scholar-in-residence program. U.S. Senator Ben Cardin on will speak December 16.
By Frank Solomon
Frank Solomon is a member of Har Tzeon Agudath-Achim and lives in Kemp Mill.