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Friday July 31, 1998

Joseph Lieberman brings Jewish values to U.S. Senate

Washington Jewish Week

WASHINGTON -- On his first Friday night in office, early in 1989, the Senate was working late -- so late, in fact, that Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), the Senate's only Sabbath-observant, Orthodox Jew, planned to sleep on a cot in the Senate gym since he could not ride home.

Vice President Al Gore, then a senator from Tennessee, prevailed upon him to stay at his parents' nearby apartment. Having campaigned in New York, Gore was familiar enough with Orthodox traditions to turn the apartment lights on and off for Lieberman.

"I may have had one of the most distinguished Shabbos goys [a non-Jew who performs tasks a Jew cannot do on Shabbat] in history," jokes Lieberman in a recent interview in his Senate office on Capitol Hill. This is a story Lieberman relishes telling, as does Gore, Lieberman says (to the appropriate audience, he is quick to add).

In the middle of his second term in the Senate, Lieberman, 56, is regarded as a moderate. An independent spirit, he supports a strong national defense and is more conservative than most Democrats on cultural issues and foreign policy.

"I don't call my rabbi every time I have to cast a vote, but the values I've learned are part of me -- beginning with the basic fact that I believe in God and that all are equal because all are creations of God," he says.

Every day, Lieberman studies something about the Torah portion of the week and tries to incorporate it into his work, "without overdoing it," he says. "It's a link" with people, he finds, noting that the Bible is the most widely read book and that the Hebrew Bible, in particular, is "very real to Christians."

Satisfied with the epithet "modern Orthodox," Lieberman appears untroubled keeping Jewish traditions while serving in the nation's capital, opting for vegetarian meals at functions, and living in Georgetown within walking distance to Orthodox Kesher Israel, the Georgetown synagogue.

Perhaps 20 times over the past nine years, the Senate has met on a Friday night or Saturday, which puts him in an "awkward situation," he allows. On those infrequent occasions, Lieberman seems comfortable honoring his promise to the people of Connecticut to be present to vote on matters of critical importance to them.

On the rare Friday night when the Senate is in session, he walks four and a half miles home, cutting a lonely figure in the darkness -- if it were not for one Capitol policeman accompanying him on foot, and another following in a car to drive the first one back.

Brought up in a religiously observant, Orthodox home in Stamford, Conn., where he attended public schools -- there was no Jewish day school -- Lieberman thrived in the inter-religious and interracial atmosphere of his youth. Yet his own offspring would be sent to private Jewish schools.

"I missed having a day-school education and wanted to provide it for my children," he recalls. He would urge them not to isolate themselves as Jews, but to take their heritage with them into the world at large.

Lieberman says his "hard-working" and "intellectual" father, the owner-operator of a liquor store, took great pride in sending all three of his children to college and graduate school, rejecting the offer of scholarship aid and insisting on paying for it himself.

Attending Yale for both undergraduate studies and law school, Lieberman worked summers for the late Jewish Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.), his role model, and soon launched his own career in state politics. President Bill Clinton, then a Yale law student, volunteered in Lieberman's winning campaign for a state Senate seat in l970.

Seated comfortably in his spacious digs in the Hart Office Building, Lieberman is remarkably at ease with people, demonstrating a quick wit and a ready smile.

Just now, he warms to the story of how he met his second wife, Hadassah, to whom he has been married for 15 years.

Shortly after his divorce from his first wife, Lieberman was approached in the synagogue by a woman who said, "I have someone I want you to meet -- but not yet." Lieberman playfully extols "the wisdom of Edith Goldberg -- the matchmaker" who wisely understood that at the time, Lieberman was not yet ready to meet her friend, his wife-to-be.

Six months later, as a candidate for attorney general of Connecticut, Lieberman found himself in the unusual position of being alone with no political event scheduled. It was Easter Sunday, April 11, l982 (a romantic, he remembers the day fondly). Lieberman delved into the drawer where he kept all the names of prospective dates given to him and picked out the most unusual. Wouldn't it be fascinating to go out with someone named Hadassah? So he phoned with a strange request: meet him that day or not until December because he had virtually no free time until after the November election.

Not missing a beat, Hadassah told him she had just bought a dining room table and could use some help moving it in.

The couple met and romance blossomed. It is amazing, Lieberman beams, (and this is part of Lieberman lore, too) how often between April and November he managed to see her.

Within the walls of the Capitol, Lieberman is highly regarded. "Joe Lieberman is a pivotal member of the Senate" and "one of the few people" who can work both sides of the aisle effectively, says Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the Senate's Democratic leader.

"I think the reason he is respected by people on both sides [of the aisle] is because he respects the views of others," Daschle adds. "Even if Joe doesn't agree with you, he'll give you a chance to make your case."

According to Daschle, there are two issues on which Lieberman never bends: the need to fight injustice and his commitment to Israel.

"I think his performance as a senator is very much informed by his faith," Daschle says.

Recently returned from the Middle East where he was sent by the Senate leadership as part of a delegation to join in Israel's 50th anniversary, Lieberman is still buoyed by the celebration. "Peace with the Palestinians is so close...there's an historic inevitability to it," he says.

Does Lieberman believe a Jew could become president of the U.S. today?

Absolutely. "This is a very fair country. We're at a point where a candidate does not lose because he or she is Jewish," he said, citing the example of his own state of Connecticut where a Jew was elected governor and senator with only a 3 or 4 percent Jewish population.

"People are very respectful of my own religious observance, very understanding and supportive," he continues.

On occasion, Lieberman's name has been mentioned as a possible future vice presidential or even presidential candidate. But Lieberman declines to discuss it. "To be a senator was a dream for me," he says. "I'm remarkably fortunate in that I realized that dream. Anything else is a bonus."

He recalls his mother's sage advice: "Just do your job, sweetheart, and the future will take care of itself."