PHRC Interim Chairman Joel Bolstein Carries on Lengthy Family Legacy

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The new interim chairman of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) appreciates the impact of discrimination.

The new interim chairman of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) appreciates the impact of discrimination.
When you grow up in predominately non-Jewish Scotch Plains, N.J., where the same kids he went to Hebrew school with were the only ones in his high school graduating class, and when you come from a family of rabbis — including his great-grandfather, who was instrumental in smuggling his entire village out of Russia — there’s a certain legacy you need to continue.
That’s what Joel Bolstein’s been doing throughout his life, especially the last 17 years he’s served on the PHRC. Since being appointed to his first five-year term in 1999 by then-Gov. Tom Ridge, he’s been reappointed twice by Gov. Ed Rendell and, most recently, by Gov. Tom Wolf.
So Bolstein knows the ropes of a commission where the mission is to “enforce state laws that prohibit discriminate in employment, housing, commercial property, education and public accommodations based on race; color; religious creed; ancestry; age; sex; national origin; familial status; handicap or disability; and the use, handling or training of support or guide animals for disability.”
Bolstein comes from a family of 22 generations of rabbis on his mother, Myrna’s, side, the last of which presented him with a unique gift: a Torah from Berezin, near Minsk, Belarus.
“My grandfather, Sol Tumin, and my great-grandfather kind of operated a Jewish underground railroad,” revealed the 55-year-old Bolstein, who maintains an active law practice with Fox Rothschild in Doylestown. “They got their entire village out of Russia after World War I when they couldn’t practice their religion anymore and decided they had to leave.
“My grandfather and great-grandfather moved hundreds of families out of their villages and got them through the borders and whatever documentation they needed by bribing border guards and doing whatever they needed to do.
“They came to New York and reconstituted the entire village in the Bronx with my zayda as the rabbi. When that shul closed, my grandfather took possession of the five Torahs they’d brought with them from Russia. One he took to Israel and gave to a Yeshiva. My uncle has one, two cousins have one each and I have one. It’s a real honor.”
So is serving on the PHRC, which originated in the late 1990s, a time when Bolstein was serving as a deputy for the Department of Environmental Protection under Ridge.
“I was partly overseeing advisory boards and commissions under our authority and got to know people in his office,” recalled Bolstein, an expert in environmental law. “When I left, they said, ‘We’re gonna call you if we have something where we think you might be helpful.’ They called me and said there was a position open on the PHRC. I thought, ‘I don’t know much about it, but it would be interesting.’ It’s been kind of a long ride since then.
“It’s important work, and I think my training as a lawyer helps because there are legal issues. It’s a natural progression. People who were rabbis in the old country were religious, but they were also interpreting the law — Jewish law.
“So, in this country, lawyers are still interpreting the law.”
The PHRC, which investigates discrimination claims, then hears cases and provides remedies, is a full-fledged governmental agency. At one point, it had a staff of 250, but it has since been reduced drastically.
“Because of added costs and budget cuts, at last count we’re down to 78 people,” said Bolstein, who spent his first day in his new position reassuring the staff. “That’s a significant reduction, and it’s not as if the workload for the commission has shrunk proportionately.
“We’re still getting the same number of claims, still getting the same amount of requests for outreach. We’d like to do more, but our investigators are carrying significant workloads, and it’s a real burden.”
Bolstein said Wolf’s most-recent budget has funding that would increase the staff to 102.
That’s encouraging for the man who wound up in Doylestown after meeting his future wife and fellow attorney, Philadelphia native Donna Snyder, while both were attending The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“In addition to attending monthly meetings, we’re supposed to attend events and try to spread the word the commission is here,” said Bolstein, who’s become active with the Chabad of Doylestown after years at Temple Judea, where his son, Sam, and daughter, Rebecca, became B’Nai Mitzvot.
“I didn’t expect to become the chairperson, and I don’t know how long it will last, but I’m excited about the position,” he said. “I’m dedicated to the mission of fighting discrimination.”
Just as his ancestors were.
The difference is that Bolstein isn’t behind a rabbi’s pulpit.
“I do think the spirituality I have compels you to do good deeds,” said Bolstein, whose approximately 110-plus year-old Torah is being touched up by a sofer and should be back by the High Holidays. “I‘m on the board of the National Kidney Foundation. I try to be a good person and be as charitable as possible.
“The work I do for the PHRC kind of falls into that category of trying to give back. People would be shocked how much hate and discrimination still exists. … We’re a long ways from a discrimination-free society.”
The new interim commissioner — who has no idea how soon a potential replacement might be named — will do his part to make that happen.
“My reaction when the governor’s office asks you do to something is you say ‘Yes,’’’ said Bolstein, who celebrated his Bar Mitzvah on Thanksgiving because his Orthodox grandfather wouldn’t travel on Shabbat.
“It’s not complicated for me. It is more of a commitment on the time side of things, and I keep reminding people I’m a practicing attorney with an active practice. That’s OK. I’ll fit it all in.”
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