Sipping on a glass of red wine and working the room at the Philadelphia Downtown Marriott in Center City, 37-year-old David Litvak introduced himself as the Jewish lawmaker from Utah. Indeed, the Democratic minority whip happens to be the only Jewish member of the Utah House of Representatives; needless to say, he's the only rep who keeps kosher.
Litvak was one of nearly 6,000 people in Philadelphia last week for the annual National Conference of State Legislators, which gathers in a different city each year. (Members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly wound up missing most of the sessions because they were stuck in Harrisburg with budget negotiations.)
In addition to hosting forums on everything from energy policy to health care, the conference also provided the setting for a yearly gathering sponsored by the National Association of Jewish Legislators.
Founded in 1977, this volunteer-run group seeks to make connections between Jewish state lawmakers from around the country. Each summer, at the state lawmakers conference, it also provides an hour of socializing and networking for its members, complete with light fare.
According to Jeffrey Wice, the group's volunteer director, who serves as counsel to the New York State Senate Democratic leadership, there are about 250 Jewish state legislators in the country.
More than a dozen Jewish lawmakers — from states such as Texas, Nevada, Michigan, and even as far as Alaska — turned out for the July 22 afternoon wine-and-cheese reception co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Three local lawmakers made it to the proceedings: State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D-District 19), State Rep. Paul Drucker (D-District 157) and State Rep. Babette Josephs (D-District 182).
The fact that most states are facing challenging budget woes was definitely an overlying theme at the gathering.
'Not So Different'
And what about the National Association of Jewish Legislators? How is it faring on this score?
Texas Democrat Elliott Naishtat, president of the Jewish lawmakers group, lamented that the group doesn't have the funding or resources to work seriously on bipartisan issues or even actively keep tabs on their numbers.
He said in a short speech that "we would like to see this organization grow so that at some point we can have paid staff."
Wise added that, with more resources, the group could better track the number of Jewish lawmakers; organize its conferences; arrange meetings with, for example, groups of Latino and black lawmakers; and advocate for bipartisan issues of Jewish interest, including funding for research on Jewish genetic diseases.
When asked what she'd like to see the group eventually become, Josephs, a liberal Democrat who's represented Center City since 1984, took a slightly more partisan tone, arguing that the organization could become a major voice on church-state separation.
"Pennsylvania is not so different from the rest of the country," she replied.
"Politics is based on Christianity, as if there were no other religion" in the United States, she said, adding that a strong Jewish lawmakers association would serve as a reminder to politicians that there are differing points of view.
"People might come to the same conclusion as some of these Bible thumpers from the Christian right," she said, although "some of them might not."