On the night of Oct. 27, hours after 11 Jewish congregants were gunned down inside a Pittsburgh synagogue, Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek put in a call to Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett.
The Conservative synagogue was organizing a solidarity service for Oct. 30 and Weinblatt wanted to know if Leggett and his wife Catherine could be
“Without a moment’s hesitation he said, ‘I’ll be there,’” Weinblatt remembered at the synagogue Monday night, as leaders of Montgomery County’s Jewish community gathered to bid farewell to the Leggetts. “I said, ‘Ike, don’t you need to double-check your calendar, check with a staff member to be sure you can make it?’ And he immediately, again without hesitation, said, ‘Unless I call you back within five minutes, I’ll be there.’ And he was.”
As Leggett returns to private life after more than 30 years in local politics (Leggett served on the County Council from 1986 to 2002 before his three terms as county executive), speakers Monday night remembered the longtime servant as attendant, compassionate, distinguished and, above all else, a friend to the Jewish people.
Vivian Bass, the chair of Jewish Women International’s board and former head of the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes, spoke effusively about Leggett’s time on the assisted living group’s board from 2002 to 2006.
“It wouldn’t and couldn’t be a JFGH event without Ike and Catherine
celebrating with us,” she said.
Leggett and Bass developed a close friendship over the years, so close that, according to Leggett, Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington Executive Director Ron Halber would strategically place Bass during important meetings.
“Now Ron is a very good, clever leader,” Leggett said to laughs across the room. “Oftentimes when I’d have these meetings with various groups to talk about the county’s budget … you would sit Vivian right across the desk from me. Because he knows how I feel about Vivian, so he said if he has to say ‘no,’ he’s going to have to say ‘no’ looking right at Vivian.”
Halber himself praised Leggett’s determination and will to achieve the public success that he has. Born in Texas in 1944, Leggett grew up poor as one of 12 siblings in Alexandria, La., going on to Southern University in Baton Rouge through a work-study program. In the 1960s, he served as a captain in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, earning a Bronze Star before getting his law degree from Howard University and a Masters of Laws degree from George Washington.
Leggett first made his career as a law professor at Howard before entering government work as an appointed member the county’s Human Relations
Committee in 1976.
In his remarks, Leggett spoke of a profound respect he and his wife have for the Jewish community and the state of Israel. A Baptist, Leggett visited the Jewish state with Halber and a county delegation during his first year in office in 2007.
“In addition to the wonderful people there, in addition to the history, in addition to the religion, in addition to all those things, underneath much of that was vulnerability,” Leggett said, remembering a trip the group took to the Golan Heights, where he could see a Syrian military encampment in the distance. “That image, in my mind, I will never ever forget, because it revealed to me the vulnerability that we far too often take for granted. The Jewish people, who’ve had to go through so many challenges, who we see the discriminatory acts [against], that vulnerability is there, and we should never ever forget that.”
Local Democratic Party activist Barbara Goldberg Goldman also talked about her relationship with Catherine, and said the only comfort she could take from the Leggetts departing their leadership positions was that County Executive Marc Elrich, who has served on the County Council since 2006, was stepping in.
Paul Hurwitz, a member at B’nai Tzedek for over 25 years, disagreed. He said he’s gotten to admire Leggett up close during his frequent visits to the synagogue, but he added that he was concerned about Elrich’s appointment of Saqib Ali — a former Maryland state delegate and supporter of the boycott, divest and sanction (BDS) movement targeting Israel — to his transition team. Elrich, who briefly made an appearance at the synagogue Monday night and is Jewish, insists that he opposes BDS.
“[Leggett] comes here not for political reasons, not to win votes. He comes here because he really is a friend of the Jewish people and wants to participate in the service. He’s for real,” Hurwitz said. “If [Elrich] really does what he says he will, if he really distances himself from people who are supportive of BDS, like he said he wasn’t in this very synagogue, I would start to consider respecting him in a similar way.”
Catherine, a longtime employment lawyer, said she wasn’t convinced Leggett could stay away from public life for too long, saying that it wasn’t so much
“goodbye” as “see you later.”
“I believe that my husband has a calling. He says he’s going to retire and … we’ll give him a few months. But when there is this light shining on you to do good and bring people together and make a difference in your community and the world, you can take a respite,” she said. “But then you have something that tears at your heart, and you’ll be pulled back.”