Arlen Specter, a lifelong squash player — he famously played even while undergoing chemotherapy treatments — used to stake out choice territory on the court. He was, according to his partners, as aggressive in the game as he was in life.
Edward. H Rosen, a friend of Specter’s since the late 1950s, recalled a game on Election Day in 1969, when Specter was seeking a second term as Philadelphia’s district attorney. The politician just wouldn’t relinquish the center of the court, even to allow Rosen room to hit his shot.
The result? Rosen accidentally hit Specter in the face with his follow-through and Specter required stitches. No one remembers who won the game, but the record shows the politician won that election.
That game of squash was not the only time that the five-term Pennsylvania senator would fight to hold onto something, whether it was his Senate seat or — as he faced numerous bouts with cancer and other health scares — his life.
Specter, 82, lost his last battle on Oct. 14, when he died of complications from non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
He was a force in Congress for three decades and a player on the regional and national public stage for far longer. But what the national obituaries have largely missed is Specter’s deep ties to the local Jewish community and his stalwart support of Israel.
His passing was mourned by Jewish organizations and leaders across the ideological spectrum. He was not a traditionally observant man but he was a proud Jew who often pointed to his background as the son of an immigrant peddler as helping to shape who he was.
Rosen, who first met Specter when the two became involved with what is now known as the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said the lawmaker “put the Jewish part out there very prominently.” He spoke often to mixed audiences, added Rosen, and he would always make it clear that his parents were Jewish immigrants.
“I would say that Arlen was a religious man,” Rosen continued. “I would say not as a traditional Jew, but he was a Conservative; he was a good member of Har Zion.”
Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley was the site of his funeral on Oct. 16. Some 1,000 friends, family members and dignitaries assembled to pay tribute. Among the longtime friends who eulogized him was Vice President Joe Biden, who said it “was never a question” that he would forgo his scheduled campaign trip to Colorado that day to be there for Specter, whom he termed “a great man” and a loyal and trusted friend.
Among those who spoke at the funeral were two of his four granddaughters, both of whom mentioned the Shabbat dinners they often shared with their grandfather and grandmother. Both of them talked of the tremendous inspiration and influence Specter played in their lives.
The eldest granddaughter, Silvi, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, got a good laugh when she said her grandfather had approved of her career goals — lawyer, senator, then president of the United States.
Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, said Specter told him he’d settled in Philadelphia in part because he wanted to be in a strong Jewish community.
“While he went on to do great things for America, he always remained very much a part of the Philadelphia Jewish community,” said Alpert, who noted that Specter was the keynote speaker at the 2009 opening of the Edward H. Rosen Center for Jewish Life at Temple University.
In fact, Specter’s last of many interviews with the Jewish Exponent over the years occurred in July, when he reflected on the life of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir after his passing at the age of 96.
“I think history will mark him down as a great leader,” Specter said.
It remains to be seen how historians will view Specter, but it’s indisputable that he was a major power in the Senate, where he served longer than anyone in the history of the Keystone State.
Will the moderate Republican — now an endangered species — be remembered as an effective lawmaker who put principle before party and was flexible, or as a politician who shifted positions to suit his own ends and lacked a core philosophy?
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, whom Specter hired in the 1960s as an assistant district attorney, said of his longtime friend and colleague: “He didn’t care about ideology, he didn’t care about party, he cared about the people he represented.”
At the funeral, Rendell was one of many who spoke about the senator’s many achievements, including his dogged effort to fund billions in life-saving research at the National Institutes of Health.
Specter, the irascible, often combative lawmaker was called “Snarlin’ Arlen” behind his back, though he mellowed considerably in recent years. He even tried his hand at stand-up comedy after his electoral defeat two years ago. He lost in the Democratic primary after switching parties.
The man who survived numerous health scares over the past decade-and-a-half, will also be remembered for the tenacity with which he battled cancer and fought to hang onto his Senate seat.
“His resiliency, his persistence, made him what he was,” said Rendell, a neighbor of Specter’s in the East Falls section of the city.
The former senator was best known for his work on domestic policy and his role on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but he made his mark on foreign policy, too, and was a strong supporter of Israel. His pro-Israel voice and socially moderate stance led many prominent Jewish Democrats in the area — including the late Joseph Smukler and Leonard Barrack — to cross party lines and support him over the years.
“Sen. Specter was a true humanitarian who gave generously of his time and resources to charitable causes that improved the lives of countless individuals and families,” Sherrie R. Savett and Ira M. Schwartz, president and CEO respectively of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said in a joint statement.
“He was a passionate advocate for the State of Israel who understood and appreciated this nation’s unique role as a stable, democratic presence in the volatile Mideast region,” they said.
Israel’s Consul General Yaron Sideman said in a statement, “The people of Israel deeply mourn the passing of Sen. Specter, a friend in the truest sense of the word.”
But Specter’s independent streak angered his pro-Israel allies at times as well. Specter met numerous times with Syrian leaders Hafez and Bashar al Assad, convinced that a deal between Syria and Israel, involving a return of the Golan Heights, was possible. He also pushed for more engagement with Iran and never seemed to give up on the idea of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
Rosen, a lifelong Republican, said his friend “was his own man. I was not happy with him going to Syria. He said, ‘You are probably right,’ ” but if there is any chance that something could come of it, he needed to try.
Specter often spoke about how his love of Israel and his overall life philosophy was shaped by his father, Harry, an immigrant who left czarist Russia in 1911 and later peddled cantaloupes and owned a junkyard in the American Midwest during the Great Depression.
“He had a tough life, a lot tougher than mine,” Specter said in an interview in April, noting that his father was born in a hut with no floor and spoke of Cossacks coming through his shtetl looking to harm Jews.
Specter spent his boyhood shuttling back and forth between Philadelphia and the Midwest, though much of his formative years were spent in Russell, Kan., where the Specters were among the few Jewish families.
Specter said he learned his work ethic from his father, as well as his love of the United States and his deep identification with Jews all over the world. In his book Life Among the Cannibals, released earlier this year, Specter for the first time talked publicly about how his father had died of a heart attack while visiting the Jewish state in 1964.
Living in a town with few Jews, Specter often said he gained a healthy respect for the separation of church and state and always distrusted efforts to break down that wall, something that never endeared him to the religious right.
During his years as Philadelphia district attorney, his unsuccessful runs for Philadelphia mayor and governor, and finally his 30 years in the U.S. Senate, Specter was a regular at fundraisers for Jewish causes.
For years, he belonged to the region’s oldest synagogue, Mikveh Israel, where his two sons, Shanin and Steve, became B’nai Mitzvah.
Later, he and his wife, Joan, joined Har Zion Temple, where Shanin, daughter-in-law Tracey and their granddaughters belonged.
Upon learning of Specter’s death, Jay Leberman, Perelman’s head of school, said, “Arlen reflected the values of our sages: ‘In a place where there is no leadership, stand up and be a leader.’ He was a true leader.”
In 2004, after he was re-elected to the Senate for the last time, he stopped by his grandchildren’s school.
“We all were thrilled to have him,” said Leberman. “As I saw him to his car, he turned to me and said, ‘I love what your school is doing for my grandchildren.’ ”
Exponent Executive Editor Lisa Hostein contributed to this report.