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The Republican Congressman Who Discovered He’s Jewish: An Interview with Representative Lee Terry

Congressman Lee Terry

Congressman Lee Terry

When Lee Terry began serving as a Republican congressman in 1999, representing Nebraska’s second congressional district, he didn’t realize he would become one of the House of Representatives’ Jewish members. Always a friend of Israel, Terry discovered his Jewish roots some ten years ago and began a personal odyssey to reconnect with his heritage.

Terry, who lives in Omaha with his wife and three sons, currently serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and was elected vice chair of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

The Jewish Press: How did you got your start in Nebraska politics?

Terry: My father was an anchorman who followed Congress and always talked about Washington at our dinner table. He actually ran for Congress in 1976 and lost. That was when I really became infatuated with how our government works, its history and the political process.

I majored in political science so I could have a major in my interest and hobby. Later on, when I was a practicing lawyer, I had the opportunity to run for city council when I has 29 and actually won. It all started at the city level. We get a lot of press at the national level, but I think the most emotional politics are at the city level.

You discovered your Jewish roots a decade ago. How did that discovery come about?

My birth mother left when I was two and my parents got divorced. I was raised by my dad and didn’t know much about my mother’s side of the family. About ten years ago my cousin from that side of the family made a family tree and found out that my maternal grandmother, who had immigrated as a very young girl from Russia, was Jewish. Her parents settled in Milwaukee and were practicing Jews, and when she was an adult she met my grandfather, a Catholic.

If you marry a Catholic you have to agree to have children brought up Catholic, so my mom was actually brought up as a Catholic even though her mother had been a practicing Jew. A couple years ago my birth mother told me that she remembered visiting her mother in Milwaukee and going to temple on Saturday.

Did your father realize your mother was Jewish and decide not to tell you?

I asked him that and he said, “Well, you know, there were rumors but no one ever said anything.” My grandfather was a professor at a Jesuit university when they moved from Milwaukee to Omaha. I don’t know if they thought that as a Catholic professor at a Catholic university they had to keep it a secret. In today’s world it wouldn’t matter one bit. In fact it would add to the culture. But I have to keep wondering, because unfortunately my grandmother died before I was born and my grandfather died when I was three or four, so I never got to know that side of the family.

Now I’ve been sitting down and learning about Jewish history and religion with some rabbi friends from the Chabad House in Omaha.

What kind of an impact has your discovery made on your life?

I think it’s a more personal impact; I have a greater ethnicity because I have this history in my family that’s really exciting. I like learning about Jewish culture and religion. Of course, I’m discussing this mostly with an Orthodox rabbi. I have a non-Orthodox acquaintance also, but when I talk to him it’s never about Jewish culture and religion; it’s always about politics.

Have your Jewish roots enhanced or validated your outlook on issues as a conservative politician?

I think it validates them. I don’t know if it enhances them because I was a solid supporter of Israel before I learned of my Jewish heritage, but this certainly gives it a greater emphasis and importance to me personally. I don’t think it’s impacted my politics but it’s given it a certain level of confirmation. And the other part is just learning the historical tenets of the faith. There’s so much of it that I say, “Oh gosh, this is what I believe, from the Orthodox perspective.”

That’s why I love sitting down with Rabbi Katzman from Chabad and that’s what we talk about: the Jewish faith and laws, what they are, why they developed, and the relation back to God’s words. I really soak it up. I just love hearing it.

In his recent AIPAC speech, President Obama spoke of supporting Israel and said he has Israel’s back when it comes to Iran, though many Republicans say his words don’t necessarily match his deeds. Would you agree with that assessment?

I do agree with this assessment. I don’t think his actions match his words. It seems like he’s trying to avoid action. The president is trying to avoid even engaging Iran. I guess I would call him inconsistent on the issue.

About the Author: Sara Lehmann, a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, was formerly an editor at a major New York publishing house.


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