Joe and Hadassah

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By Wayne Pines

The untimely death of former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman brings back many memories for me of a special and unique man.

During the late 1990s, Hadassah Lieberman, Joe’s wife, worked with me at APCO Associates, now APCO Worldwide. Hadassah had previous experience working in communications for the pharmaceutical industry, most notably Hoffmann-La Roche, so she was a natural asset for our work on health care accounts.

Hadassah and I spent many mornings talking about and planning the coming day’s activities. She also shared many of her observations and experiences as a prominent Senate wife, as she saw me as a safe harbor, not involved in the daily political fray.

It would be fair to say that Hadassah was notably unimpressed with the Washington political scene. She was absolutely devoted to Joe, but she was cynical about the egos of self-important people and the false formalities and insincere friendships of political Washington.

One story that illustrated how unimpressed Hadassah was with official Washington is that after an event where Joe was featured as he moved up in the political world, he asked her how many truly great men there were in the Western world. Her response: “One less than you think.”

Hadassah met Joe after both had been divorced and had children (he had two children and she had one from their first marriages, and they had one daughter together). A woman at Joe’s synagogue gave Hadassah’s phone number to Joe. He was recently divorced and was seeking to meet a well-educated, professional woman with a strong Jewish background and commitment. Hadassah had a master’s degree from Northeastern University in Boston and had previously been married to a rabbi.

Hadassah related that Joe called her on the phone and asked whether they could meet. Hadassah agreed and invited him to her apartment. She wanted to connect on that particular day because she was moving from her apartment that day and wanted him to help her move! This was their first date. At the time, Joe was the attorney general of Connecticut.

After he was elected to the Senate, Hadassah and Joe lived in Georgetown, where they could be close to Kesher Israel, the Orthodox synagogue. They chose to live in Georgetown because it was close to Kesher Israel and across town from the Capitol. In the case of a Saturday Senate session, Joe could walk to the Senate, which he did when needed.

I joined them at Kesher Israel on occasion and then went to their home for Shabbat lunch. Their Saturday routine when they were in Washington, D.C., was to walk to Kesher Israel, where he davened on the main floor, and she sat modestly with the women in the balcony.

After services, they walked home, where Hadassah served the lunch she had prepared in advance. There were always fresh flowers on the table as Joe bought a bouquet of flowers every week to welcome Shabbat. At the conclusion of the meal Joe sang the Birkat Hamazon (the prayer after eating). He was really personally observant not just in public, but at home as well.

I recall one Shabbat lunch with Hadassah, Joe and Hadassah’s son Ethan at their Georgetown townhouse on T Street. They were interested in moving to a larger home and were considering Kemp Mill in Maryland, which has a large Orthodox community. Joe could take the Metro to the Senate from Kemp Mill.

We all quickly agreed that taking the Metro on Shabbat would be inconsistent with his religious practice, so living in Kemp Mill would make it impossible for him to attend the occasional Senate sessions on Saturday. The most memorable part of the conversation was the hypothetical question of whether the use of a Metro card was permitted on the Sabbath. Did the act of inserting a Metro card constitute the use of electricity? I don’t recall the outcome of the conversation, but it did reflect the kinds of religious and intellectual issues that Joe pondered when he wasn’t on the Senate floor.

The Liebermans did wind up moving to another townhouse in Georgetown, actually a bit further away from the Capitol building. They lived there until he left the Senate in 2013. They then moved to New York, where Joe worked at a law firm and remained active politically. I believe Hadassah’s cynicism about Washington influenced their decision to move away from Washington, because Joe just as easily could have joined a law firm in Washington.

I last saw Hadassah and Joe at a dinner when my son’s mother-in-law retired from teaching at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax. Hadassah had short hair as she was recovering from chemotherapy treatment. Even though their dinner seats were at a different table with the Gesher leadership, they were kind enough to join my family at our table when they could.

Politically, Joe was an independent, even when he ran and served in the Senate as a Democrat. His mode of operation was entirely the opposite of today’s extreme polarization – he stood in the great Senate tradition of collegiality and compromise. He would have made a great vice president. I never heard him express anger at the way that the 2000 presidential election was decided. His style was to accept the unfortunate defeat and move on. He also knew he might have been elected vice president in 2008 had Republican John McCain selected him as his running mate and they won.

Joe Lieberman was a role model for what a family man should be. He and Hadassah were devoted to each other and led a balanced life together. He personally was true to his religious beliefs and the ethical underpinning that supports them.

Joe also was a role model for what a political leader and public official should be. In his most recent leadership roles, right up until the time of his death, he was trying to restore civility and common sense to the national scene.

Times obviously have changed since he stood at center stage. His untimely and unexpected passing removes a powerful and influential voice from the national scene at a time when we need it the most. May his memory be a blessing.

Wayne Pines is a health care consultant in Chevy Chase.

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