Repairing the world from the Virginia statehouse
Eileen Filler-Corn, the fast-rising speaker of the House, maintains strong ties to the Jewish community in a state that has turned solidly blue
In Washington, D.C., the synagogues of choice for prominent politicians, pundits and the literary set are seen as spiritual status symbols. Indeed, certain ambitious political types have been known to choose a popular congregation because of its prestigious membership roster.
Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg attended High Holiday services at Adas Israel Congregation in Cleveland Park. Former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew famously did not work on Shabbat, which he often observed at Georgetown’s Kesher Israel, where Joe Lieberman was also a member when he served in the U.S. Senate. During the Trump administration, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump attended services at the D.C. Chabad in Kalorama.
Half an hour from downtown D.C., in Springfield, Va., Congregation Adat Reyim does not have the name recognition or the cachet of the Beltway’s most esteemed congregations. But the synagogue has long counted Eileen Filler-Corn as a member. Elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates in 2010 by a margin of just 37 votes, Filler-Corn, a Democrat, is now entering her second year as Virginia’s speaker of the House — the first Jewish person and first woman to hold the position. A year ago, just before she struck the gavel for the first time, she attended a celebratory Havdalah send-off at Adat Reyim. The music of choice? Filler-Corn’s favorite: Debbie Friedman, the late Jewish folk musician whose music is a mainstay at Reform congregations and summer camps.
“We might have done a Mi Shebeirach, that [Filler-Corn] would continue to have the courage to make her life a blessing,” said Rabbi Bruce Aft, the congregation’s rabbi emeritus, referring to Friedman’s classic song about the Jewish prayer for healing. When Aft gave the invocation on the morning Filler-Corn was sworn in as speaker last year, his prayer incorporated more Friedman music, the Hanukkah song “Don’t Let the Light Go Out,” and Peter, Paul, and Mary.
Filler-Corn’s rise from rookie lawmaker to House speaker in just 10 years owes much to Virginia’s fast-changing political identity, which saw the state change from purple to almost firmly blue over just a few years. As she rose in the party’s ranks, Filler-Corn kept her Jewish community close, inviting Aft to deliver invocations at the statehouse and hosting receptions in Richmond, the capital, for her Jewish supporters from around the state.
“She is incredibly proud of her Jewish background,” Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington, told Jewish Insider, calling Filler-Corn “unapologetically pro-Israel” with “Jewish identity coursing through her veins.”
Filler-Corn served on the JCRC’s board before she was elected, and she remains on the boards of the American Jewish Committee’s Washington office and the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes, an organization that provides housing and other services for people with disabilities and mental illness in the Washington region.
Supporting the disabled community was one of Filler-Corn’s first forays into social action. As a child in West Windsor, N.J., Filler-Corn sold lemonade and hosted fundraisers to benefit the Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Braille Society. The issue was personal to her: “Growing up, my mother had multiple sclerosis. And growing up, she was blind for much of my youth,” Filler-Corn told JI in a recent Zoom interview.
“What got me involved in politics really was tikkun olam, and just from a young [age] really wanting to give back and wanting to repair the world,” Filler-Corn explained.
Before starting at Ithaca College, Filler-Corn spent a gap year in Israel on Young Judaea’s Year Course program. One of her fellow participants was Gil Preuss, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. When he moved to the area almost four years ago, Filler-Corn was one of the first people he reached out to. Now, he turns to her regularly for guidance on what he described as “the challenges we’re facing as a Jewish community during COVID.”
Filler-Corn’s tenure in the Virginia statehouse has been punctuated by other challenges for Virginia’s Jewish community. In early 2017, she spoke at a Jewish day school in Northern Virginia after it received bomb threats. That summer, white supremacists marched through the normally serene streets of Charlottesville, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Three months later, Democrats got within a coin toss — literally — of taking the majority in the House of Delegates, flipping 15 Republican seats. Filler-Corn was elected minority leader. “The past couple years have not been easy for her,” Preuss said. “She’s had threats against her.”
Filler-Corn’s political career has served as a kind of bellwether to national political trends: She was first elected in a special election in early 2010, just months after Republicans swept statewide offices in Virginia, foreshadowing the widespread losses Democrats would face in the 2010 midterms under then-President Barack Obama. When Republican State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli was elected attorney general, the Democrat representing Filler-Corn’s district decided to run for Cuccinelli’s seat, leaving an open House seat.
When she became minority leader in 2018, Virginia was fresh off an election seen as a repudiation of then-President Donald Trump. A year later, Virginia’s “blue wave” replicated itself across the country, with the Democrats winning control of the U.S. House for the first time since 2010.
But Filler-Corn’s electoral career began 11 years earlier, when she ran for the same seat and lost.
At the time her children were toddlers, and at a public debate, “somebody held up a picture of my children. And they said, ‘If you want to start making a difference, why don’t you start by raising your own children.’” Filler-Corn said she received criticism like this often in that campaign, noting that “no one ever asked [these questions] of men.” Later, as speaker, one of the first items on Filler-Corn’s agenda was pushing for Virginia to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
She only decided to run again after being approached by Mark Sickles, another member of the Virginia House of Delegates from Fairfax County. “Often, with women, you need to be asked many times,” Filler-Corn explained.
After talking to Sickles, she heard from now-Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who at the time had recently left the governor’s mansion, and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA); she had worked in both of the Virginia senators’ gubernatorial administrations, running their Washington offices. But it was a conversation with Anne Holton, Kaine’s wife (and the daughter of former Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton, a Republican), that convinced her to run. Holton told Filler-Corn that it was possible to reconcile public service and motherhood. “She just gave me the push that I needed,” Filler-Corn said.
Sickles told JI that it was “characteristic” of Filler-Corn to weigh her options, being a person who “likes to think through things.” That careful consideration has served her well in office. Being House speaker “is one of the hardest jobs I can imagine,” Sickles said, noting that Filler-Corn has to corral both a diverse group of vocal Democrats along with a rambunctious Republican caucus.
In 2016, she built a broad coalition of lawmakers to pass a resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Filler-Corn wanted to showcase Virginia’s opposition to BDS, but she knew that the legislation would not send the right message unless it was supported by members of both parties.
“The goal is to get broad bipartisan support, so that it would be rejected by the entire legislature. This piece of legislation was dividing people along political lines,” said Halber of the JCRC. “With [Filler-Corn’s] magic touch, we were able to turn this into a win-win, where the legislature overwhelmingly condemned BDS and did it in a bipartisan fashion.” The bill passed with near-unanimous majorities in both houses.
Filler-Corn works mainly on the progressive priorities championed by Democrats across the country. After the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last spring, she reconvened the House for a special session on racial justice. One of her first acts in office last winter was passing a slate of gun-violence-prevention bills, which Gov. Ralph Northam had tried to pass the year before after a 2019 mass shooting in Virginia Beach. “The Republican majority gaveled out after 90 minutes of not passing any of those bills,” she said — but a year later, the Democrats had taken the majority.
Members of the Virginia Jewish community say that Filler-Corn has also proven a champion of Jewish issues. In a body not known for engaging with international affairs, Filler-Corn worked with the Israeli Embassy and the Virginia Israel Advisory Board, on whose board she previously sat, to pass a resolution commemorating Israel’s 65th anniversary in 2013. She said it just made sense that, as a pro-Israel Jew, she would work on that issue: “That was not something I necessarily had always thought of, but once I was there in that position, of course, I’m going to do that,” Filler-Corn said.
Filler-Corn has worked to beef up spending to nonprofits in the state. Halber told JI that Virginia “has traditionally been a state where nonprofits are not well-supported,” but added that Filler-Corn has been “a great ally to the nonprofit sector” who is “strengthening the social safety net for all Virginians.” She has helped bring government dollars to smaller nonprofits, he said, including religious providers of social services. “I’ll always work to help the 501(c)3 Jewish social services,” said Filler-Corn.
She has also sought to bring more Judaism to the state capitol. Last year she changed the institution’s weekly Bible study to an “interfaith devotional,” bringing together “members of clergy from all different religions and races” to discuss religious teachings. The devotional’s first guest: Rabbi Aft, Filler-Corn’s longtime rabbi and friend from Adat Reyim.
Just last month, the devotional met for the first time virtually, and it now takes place weekly on Zoom. Of course, that meeting isn’t the only part of legislating that has changed with the pandemic. Last year, Virginia’s legislative session — constitutionally mandated to take place over 60 days at the start of the year — wrapped up just hours before Northam declared a state of emergency for the pandemic.
The legislature met six weeks later under outdoor tents for the annual reconvened session, “usually a perfunctory exercise to address the governor’s amendments and vetoes to legislation,” according to the Virginia Mercury. But Filler-Corn had the difficult task of working with the governor to walk back key policy proposals Democrats had passed, including a delay in increasing the state’s minimum wage, to amend the budget to meet the needs of the coronavirus crisis. It was “very depressing,” said Sickles. “But at least we’re in pretty good financial condition in the state, and we were able to put some of that [money] back later.” Now, Filler-Corn conducts the legislative session from an empty chamber in Richmond, while everyone else attends via Zoom.
Filler-Corn’s religious community moved online as well. She attended a Zoom Seder last year, and she acknowledges that she is “clicking on to services on a much more regular basis” these days. “Whether we’re focused on the discrimination or the hate and misogyny or antisemitism,” she explained, “or we’re talking about just how divided we are as a country… I think people need, really, to connect and unify even more. There’s more of a need for that. And we weren’t able to do that in person, but we can do that on Zoom.”
What continues to guide Filler-Corn is her connection to the Jewish community. “There are numerous times when she would either be giving a speech sponsoring a bill or having a vote on something, where she would contact me and ask me, ‘What does Judaism say about this?’” said Aft. “She wasn’t just putting on a show.”