Calif. Jewish leaders remember Feinstein, first female Jewish senator, as inspiration to women in politics

Friends and colleagues describe a pioneering figure who "lifted the spirits and inspired" a generation of women to get involved in politics

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Dianne Feinstein, her arms outstretched in celebration, in her office after she was elected mayor of San Francisco, at San Francisco City Hall in San Francisco, California, circa 1978.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who served more than 30 years in the Senate, was remembered over the weekend by Jewish activists in California as a shrewd politician who made meaningful strides in curbing gun violence and domestic assault, and a pioneering figure who “lifted the spirits and inspired” a generation of women to get involved in politics. Feinstein, who was the oldest member of the Senate, died on Friday in Washington at age 90.

First elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969, Feinstein catapulted into the national consciousness after the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978; she discovered Milk’s body. Feinstein took over for Moscone as mayor, becoming the first woman to hold that post, before her election to the Senate in 1992, the first woman in California, and the first Jewish woman, elected to the upper chamber. 

“[Speaking] as a gay Jewish leader, the work that she did during the AIDS crisis, and taking the mantle after Harvey Milk’s assassination is something that is recognized nationwide by the LGBT community,” said Tyler Gregory, CEO of the Bay Area Jewish Community Relations Council. Milk was the first openly gay man elected to public office in California.

Feinstein was born and raised in San Francisco, and it was at San Francisco’s Reform Congregation Emanu-El that she formally converted to Judaism at age 20 — her father was Jewish, and her mother was Jewish by ancestry but practiced Russian Orthodox Christianity. She remained a member of the synagogue throughout her life. For the 24 years that Feinstein served alongside former Sen. Barbara Boxer, who retired in 2017, California was the only state with two Jewish female senators.

“She and I went to Masada for the first time together, and walked up Masada at sunrise before there was a cable car,” said Anita Friedman, executive director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of San Francisco. “That’s how far our friendship stretches.” (The cable car at the Masada fortress in Israel was built in 1971.) 

In the Senate, Feinstein was generally aligned with AIPAC and supportive of mainstream pro-Israel positions. But at times she diverged from other pro-Israel activists, most notably following Israel’s use of cluster bombs in its 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. She introduced legislation seeking to ban American sales or transfers of the weapons, blamed for the death of Lebanese civilians. 

“We worked together to build the first Holocaust memorial in San Francisco. We worked together to establish the first Yom HaShoah observance in San Francisco in 1978. We continued to work together on domestic issues and on pro-Israel issues and on Jewish community issues for all the years starting from the early ‘70s until she just passed away,” said Friedman, who also serves on the national board of AIPAC. “We didn’t always agree. But she was always a friend of Israel.”

As mayor and as a senator, Feinstein pursued measures to curb gun violence. She authored the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, which passed, but expired 10 years later. Last year, she helped lead the congressional reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which she had initially voted for in 1994. 

“She’s just a really old-school politician in a good way. She was really no-nonsense about getting a job done,” said California state Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat. “She did not need to be loved by everyone all the time.” 

Feinstein clashed publicly with leaders in her own party nearly a decade ago, when she sought the release of a damning CIA report examining the agency’s use of torture and detention methods after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. As chair of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee, Feinstein worked to make public the 700-page executive summary of the report, over objections from the CIA director. 

In the final years of her life, Feinstein’s age and her deteriorating health became a major cause for concern even among political allies, and she faced criticism for not stepping aside sooner. In 2018, the California Democratic Party did not endorse her reelection bid, although she won handily. 

Her first election marked a historic year for female representation, which rose from two senators to six in the 1992 election. 

“​​She set the example starting in the ‘70s that women could be in decision-making roles in this country,” said Friedman. “I think that was probably a tremendous contribution, and lifted the spirits and inspired many women to get involved.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom will appoint Laphonza Butler, the president of the pro-choice campaign organization EMILYs List and a former union leader, to fill Feinstein’s seat, Politico reported on Sunday.

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