D.C. Council makes room for its Jewish members

Rabbi Levi Shemtov of American Friends of Chabad leads the mezuzah dedication ceremony at Councilmember Brianne Nadeau's office.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov of American Friends of Chabad leads the mezuzah dedication ceremony at Councilmember Brianne Nadeau’s office.

Ordering bacon for breakfast is usually not considered a teachable moment, but for Washington’s new Jewish Councilmember Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) it was an opportunity to explain what it means to be kosher.

“I want his bacon not to be near my eggs,” Nadeau said in response to the request from her colleague as they decided on what to eat at the body’s weekly breakfast together.

It was an example of how legislators and staffers at the Wilson Building are quickly learning to adapt to the religious observances and cultural traditions of Nadeau and Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), the other new Jewish councilmember who joined the council in January.

Growing up as a “super minority” in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and then attending Jesuit Catholic Boston College, Nadeau said it is reflexive for her to educate non-Jews about her faith. One of her first acts on the council was to have Rabbi Levi Shemtov hang the mezuzah at her office door.


“I sort of started a dialogue around observance and even though I don’t consider myself strictly observant, there are enough Jewish traditions that I follow that it does make a difference,” said Nadeau.

While there have historically been Jewish councilmembers such as Carol Schwartz and Jim Nathanson, Nadeau said that they are very vocal about their Judaism and the council is taking notice.

Nadeau and Silverman both sit on the Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which is chaired by Councilmember Vincent Orange (D-At Large), and on a recent Friday there was a marathon hearing that was lasting into the evening with no end in sight.

“Elissa and I both realized that the hour was coming when the Sabbath would begin, and I in particular like to honor the Sabbath with a family meal or with friends or in some way. Friday nights are my nights to really keep out of work. I don’t do events on Friday nights for the most part. I don’t participate in any business.

“And so I had pulled the chairman of the committee aside, and I said ‘Chairman Orange, I’m hoping that you will consider recessing the committee so that those of us observing the Sabbath can have the opportunity to ask the government witnesses these really important questions.

“And he within really minutes, he was able to figure out the rules. How we could reschedule those questions to bring the agency heads back and allow us to go on with just listening for a little while longer before recessing the hearing and resuming. And so it was really great. It was an example of someone not knowing and then once he learned immediately understanding the importance and accommodating that so, it’s a really special thing actually,” said Nadeau.

Orange apologized and committed to no more marathon hearings on Fridays now that he knows.

Nadeau said she sent a list of all Jewish holidays to the council secretary at the beginning of the session. People are more aware of the dates of Jewish holidays and try to plan around them for important council meetings and business.

“Just because I’m in the room they’ll often do like ‘Hey Brianne, is that a Jewish holiday?’ It’s pretty cool. Of course I often end up asking Rabbi Google. But it’s nice to be asked first. Everyone really has been very supportive,” said Nadeau, who worked with organizers of Columbia Heights Day to move the event from Yom Kippur to another day.

“When we reviewed the 2015 schedule of legislative and Committee of the Whole meetings, I checked specifically regarding the Jewish holidays to ensure there is no conflict,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelsohn (D) said in an email. “A conflict would be an issue both for members and the public.”

Said Silverman: “The council is respectful of various religious practices and is an inclusive place so I’ve certainly felt welcome in that way.”

[email protected]

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here