Jewish Democrats running for Congress as non-incumbents in the 2018 elections.
*These profiles do not necessarily serve as endorsements of any candidate.
Kevin Abel, Georgia District 6, May 22
Kevin Abel immigrated to America at age 14, moving with his family from South Africa to Texas. He later made his way to the Atlanta area in 1990, where he has become an active member of his Jewish community. As vice chair of New American Pathways, a nonprofit that works with two of the national resettlement agencies authorized by the State Department to support newly arrived refugees, Abel led efforts at his local synagogue to aid refugee families from Syria.
Abel is running in a heavily contested primary, which will take place on May 22. The winner of the primary will go on to face Republican incumbent Rep. Karen Handel. Last year, Handel defeated Jewish Democrat Jon Ossoff, winning—by a thin margin—a closely watched runoff election.
Abel and his wife, Cindy, started their own technology company, Abel Solutions, in the mid-1990s, growing it into a regional business employing hundreds of people.
In a statement released on the announcement of his candidacy, Abel wrote, “I am inspired to represent people who truly want change. I am inspired to bring together people across the aisle to address our country’s biggest domestic challenges including health care policy, immigration, social security, climate change, campaign finance, and the ever expanding debt.”
Alison Friedman, Virginia 10, June 12 Primary
In January 2017, Friedman’s daughter, Olivia, came home from school with a note she had written to the president about kindness. When Friedman tried to take a picture of the letter, her daughter asked her not to, saying, “What if he finds out that I wrote it and brings guns to our house?”
That interaction was part of what inspired Friedman, who has long been an activist, to run Congress.
After college, Friedman joined People for the American Way, working to advance voting rights, civil rights and civil liberties. She also co-founded a nonprofit to fight human trafficking in supply chains. Friedman has worked locally and nationally in the national security industry, where she found herself crafting an executive order for President Barack Obama that increased protections against human trafficking. “I helped author a law to fight slavery in supply chains that served as an international model,” she says on her campaign website.
Ultimately, Friedman, 38, wants to make lives better. She was inspired to run after explaining to her daughter that in their family, after they see something unfair, they do something to change it. “I’ve spent my life working to increase opportunities for those often left out, ignored, or exploited … That’s what I want to do in Congress.”
Perry Gershon, New York District 1, June 26 Primary
Before becoming a successful businessman, Perry Gershon got his political start as a volunteer on the presidential campaigns of Sens. Ted Kennedy and Gary Hart in the 1980s. Gershon graduated from Yale in 1984, and then opened one of New York’s first sports bars for fans of the Mets, Jets and Knicks. He and his family have been involved in their local synagogue, fighting for social justice and New York’s Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act after the Sandy Hook shooting, and in relief efforts following superstorm Sandy.
After the 2016 election, however, Gershon felt a personal call to fight for change.
Despite running in a contested primary, Gershon has his sights set on Rep. Lee Zeldin, the Jewish Republican who currently represents the Long Island district. According to his campaign website, Gershon is “fed up with Republicans like Congressman Lee Zeldin and Donald Trump, including their effort to take away health care for millions of Americans, squeezing the middle-class to fund budget-busting tax giveaways for the ultra-wealthy and big corporations, and siding with the NRA instead of working to end gun violence in America. It’s unacceptable.”
Gershon felt compelled to do more after the election of President Trump. On his campaign website he pledges to fight against Trump-Zeldin efforts to “degrade” the environment, and to fight for gun control and a woman’s right to choose. He also pledges to help provide quality jobs, health care, education and retirement security.
If Gershon emerges from the primary to face off against Zeldin in November, it would be a rare situation of two Jewish candidates from different parties running against each other in a general election.
Dan Helmer, Virginia District 10, June 12 Primary
Dan Helmer has devoted his life to serving his country, and plans to continue in Washington.
Helmer, 35, is the grandson of Holocaust survivors who were welcomed to the U.S. as refugees, inspiring him to give back and join the military. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point where he was the Hillel president during his last two years.
Helmer went on to serve in the military, studied Israel’s security as a Rhodes Scholar, and supports a two-state solution. His paternal grandfather fought in Israel’s War of Independence.
The importance of teamwork became clear to Helmer when his general called him to say that the Afghan officers needed to be trained properly. Helmer then trained Americans, Afghans and coalition partners to solve problems together, and his work led to a national training center for military officers.
Helmer is prioritizing rising unemployment in the Virginia 10 and improving local infrastructure. He criticizes President Trump for dividing the U.S., and says he will work to bring people together. He said, “The essence of being in the military is to put country before self. It’s been something deeply absent from our politics.”
Sara Jacobs, California District 49, June 5 Primary
Sarah Jacobs never thought she would run for political office, but like so many, she said the current political climate spurred her to take on entrenched incumbent Republican Congressman Darrell Issa. “This moment is too important to sit on the sidelines — we need new leaders to step up and serve,” she said in an email announcing her candidacy for the House.
Jacobs grew up in the district (in the Del Mar section of San Diego), and then earned degrees at Columbia University. Going on from there, she worked at the United Nations and served as a foreign policy adviser on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. She also worked in the State Department during the Obama administration.
Jacobs, the granddaughter of Irwin Jacobs, the founder of the powerhouse tech company Qualcomm, stresses the importance of women’s representation on her campaign website. “Women need an advocate in Washington. We’ve seen what it’s like when a room full of men try to legislate on women’s health. We need women at the table to make sure we’re making investments in childcare, education, and women’s health.”
Sam Johnson, Texas District 3, May 22 Primary Runoff
The northeast Texas district is currently represented by retiring Republican Congressman Sam Johnson. Running to replace him is a Jewish Democrat also named Sam Johnson, but of no relation to the current member of Congress.
Democrat Sam Johnson started his own law firm after moving back to the district, where he “devotes about 75 percent of his practice to serving as outside general counsel for businesses ranging from startups to international companies.” He has won the Texas Monthly/SuperLawyers Rising Star award every year since 2014. Johnson teaches education seminars for numerous local bar associations, is active in the Collin County Bar Association and has invested in new business concepts. He also attended the FBI-Dallas Citizens Academy and is involved in its alumni association.
Johnson credits his Jewish upbringing for his desire to serve his community. “Judaism is a service-oriented religion. You are taught to participate. [It is] where I get my desire for public service. I’ve carried my leadership skills throughout my life through BBYO.” Johnson is also on the board of the North-Texas/Oklahoma region of the Anti-Defamation League, where he serves as the regional co-chair of the ADL Education Committee and sits on the ADL’s National Advocacy & Engagement Committee and its Leadership 2020 Committee.
Johnson received 28.68 percent of the vote in the March 6 primary and will face off against Lorie Burch in a runoff election on May 22. Burch received 49.61 percent of the primary votes, but Texas requires candidates for state office to receive at least 50 percent to be declared the winner.
Dan Kohl, Wisconsin District 6, August 14 Primary
Dan Kohl was raised in a family that prioritized community voluntarism. This spirit of activism inspires him to run for Congress.
After graduating from law school, Kohl, now 52, began a 13-year long career with the Milwaukee Bucks. He served as assistant general manager, managing the team’s salary cap and overseeing collegiate and international recruitment.
In the wake of the Iraq War, Kohl joined the pro-Israel advocacy group J Street as vice president of political affairs. At J Street, Kohl worked with federal officials and congressional candidates on Middle East policy. He now serves on the board, and in 2017 he received the organization’s Tzedek V’Shalom award, honoring his work on behalf of Middle East peace.
Kohl has an extensive record of involvement in the Jewish community. He currently serves on the board for the University of Wisconsin – Madison Hillel and has served on the boards of the American Jewish Committee, the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, the Milwaukee Jewish Day School (as chair), and Washington Hebrew Congregation.
Kohl says, “Though not observant I am proudly Jewish and grew up in a family that emphasized social justice and tikkun olam. Those values led to my steady and increased involvement across the organized Jewish community. Those values explain why I left a career in professional sports management to head up a nonprofit dedicated to remedying the massive educational achievement gap in Wisconsin. And those same values were reflected in the professional work I’ve done advocating for children’s health and military mental health.”
Andy Levin, Michigan District 9, August 7 Primary
Andy Levin has spent his life fighting for the middle class inside and outside of government. In this time of political division, he is ready to defend democracy in Washington.
Levin, 57, is running to replace his father, Rep. Sander Levin, in Congress. He has a long history as an advocate of workers’ rights, from creating and running No Worker Left Behind, the largest job re-training program in the country, to Union Summer, which organizes young people to recruit for unions.
Levin is also passionate about clean energy — he started his own clean energy business and created Lean & Green Michigan. His leadership experience doesn’t stop there — he also formerly ran the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth. Levin is active in the Jewish community, and currently serves as the president of Detroit-area Congregation T’chiyah. He also chairs the steering committee for Detroit Jews for Justice, an organization that encourages Jews of all ages to fight for racial and economic justice.
Mark Levin, California District 39, June 5 Primary
With a background in a number of local, state and federal political campaigns and organizations, Mike Levin has decided it’s time to run for office himself.
Levin, 39, grew up with a Catholic mother and Jewish father, celebrating both holidays — something that he says taught him the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. “This is a country built on escaping religious persecution,” he said. “We are better than the recent intolerance we have seen.”
Former executive director of the Democratic Party of Orange County, he worked as an attorney focused on environmental and energy regulatory compliance and government affairs. He served on the board of the Center for Sustainable Energy in San Diego, and co-founded Sustain OC in Orange County.
In 2011, Levin was named to the OC METRO 40 under40 for his work in clean energy. He pledges to champion clean environmental policies, as well as Medicare for all, affordable higher education and preventing gun violence.
Elaine Luria, Virginia District 2, June 12 Primary
A U.S. Navy veteran, Elaine Luria says her personal philosophy is, “Be good. Do good work.” Running for Congress, she wants to bring that attitude back to Congress. And, her district happens to be home to Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval complex in the world.
At 17, Luria, now 42, joined the U.S. Navy. She served for 20 years as a surface warfare officer and nuclear engineer. Luria was deployed six times, traveling to Japan, the Middle East and the Western Pacific. During her service, she frequently coordinated Passover seders and was a lay leader for other Jewish service members. During the Iraq war, Luria organized a seder aboard the USS Enterprise as jets were launching and landing just inches above her head. She told JTA that she and the celebrants, both Jews and non-Jews, were able to establish a sense of family.
Today, she is an active member of the Norfolk Jewish community.
When Luria retired from the military in June, she decided to commit herself to the local economy by opening a small business. She opened Mermaid Factory, where groups can decorate their own mermaids and create souvenirs of Hampton Roads’ iconic mermaid and dolphin symbols. She says that her store has donated $50,000 to charity and brought over $250,000 tax dollars into the economy.
Kathy Manning, North Carolina 13, Won May 8 Primary
Manning says she was raised with the understanding that she has an obligation to give back to her community. Her great-grandparents came to America to escape religious persecution, and from them she learned the importance of perseverance and community service. This purpose drives Manning, 60, to run for Congress.
She brings to her run significant leadership experience. Long active in the Jewish community, Manning was the first woman to chair the Jewish Federations of North America, a position she held from 2009 to 2012. She was also a founding board member of Prizmah, a network of Jewish day schools of all denominations, where she is the currently the board chair.
Manning also focused on immigrations issues as a partner at a major law firm in Washington, D.C., leaving after 16 years to start her own practice. She now sits on the board of multiple Jewish organizations, and twice served as the board of trustees of the B’nai Shalom Synagogue Day School in Greensboro.
“My faith and my life experience as a business person, community leader, and mom teach me that our communities thrive when we bring people together to meet our challenges,” she says.
Manning won her May 8 primary with 70.14 percent of the vote and will take on Republican Ted Budd in November.
Dean Phillips, Minnesota District 3, August 14 Primary
Dean Phillips was in middle school when he heard John Anderson, then running for president as an independent, speak. He was struck by Anderson’s advice about the need for independence in government and the risk of money in politics. Young Dean was telling his family about the talk when his grandmother asked him whether he was a Democrat or Republican. He had no idea, so his grandmother told him, “you’re a Democrat.”
That would be Grandma Abby, as in advice columnist Dear Abby (the late Pauline Phillips).
Dean Phillips, who calls himself “fiscally responsible and socially inclusive,” later went to the encyclopedia to learn about Democrats and Republicans, and then in college interned in Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-Vt.) office. “He shared with us the inner workings of our system and that inspired me,” Phillips told TC Jewfolk. “I thought given the right circumstances, opportunity, and need, if those intersected, I would step up.”
That right time came with this year’s election.
His main experience with governance came as a board member at Temple Israel in Minneapolis. He’s also the former CEO of Phillips Distilling Company, established by his great-great-grandfather in 1912, former CEO and co-owner of Talenti Gelato and current CEO of Penny’s Coffee.
Dean Phillips comes from a philanthropic family — the family name adorns The Phillips-Wangensteen Building at the University of Minnesota, the Phillips Eye Institute and The Jay Phillips Center for Multifaith Learning — and says that Jewish values drive that philanthropy. “Our true family business is the foundation, and philanthropy is the thread that is woven through the generations,” he told TC. “My Jewishness begins with that.”
Max Rose, New York District 11, June 26 Primary
A fourth-generation Jewish New Yorker, Max Rose, 31, earned a Ranger tab, Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his Army service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now in the Army National Guard, Rose hopes to earn the right to win another pin — that worn by members of Congress.
He has a tough battle ahead, running for the Democratic primary in a Staten Island district that, with the exception of two years, has been in Republican hands since 1980 and saw Donald Trump get 57 percent of the vote in the 2016 presidential election. But the combat-tested Rose is optimistic, telling Times of Israel that his focus on the economy, health care and the military should appeal to voters. “People have lost their faith in the system,” he says. “This is such an important time. We are at such a crossroads. There is a shared overriding sense that government is broken. People feel politicians don’t care, they don’t see them having passion and commitment and the dedication [people] deserve.”
Rose enlisted after receiving his B.A. in history from Wesleyan University and master’s in philosophy and public policy from the London School of Economics. He laments that a “culture has emerged in many parts of this country where we value service, but we don’t put military service as an option,” and notes that he was often grilled about why he wanted to join the Army. “To this day I’m humbled and awed by the unbelievable people that serve. And in many of these bubbles we live in, that’s not understood,” he says.
Following his military service, Rose worked as director of public engagement and special assistant to the late Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, and later joined Brightpoint Health, a nonprofit health care provider in New York City.
On the campaign trail, he tells crowds, “We, as Democrats, need to regain the trust of the people and not be bought out by the system. It’s time for a change, and I believe that I can help cut the cost of health care and education, fix this opioid crisis and bring Staten Island and south Brooklyn back to the way it was.”
Congresswoman Jacky Rosen (NV), running for Senate, August 7 Primaru
Jacky Rosen, running for Senate after one term in the House — representing a Nevada district that had not elected a Democrat since 2008 — has said her faith guided her to public service. “My faith tradition teaches me that we’re supposed to leave the world a better place than when we found it,” she told the Nevada Independent when she announced she would be running for Senate.
Before Rosen ran for Congress, her only elective experience had been on her synagogue board. She had served as president of Congregation Ner Tamid, Nevada’s largest synagogue, where she cut energy bills by 70 percent to allow more money to go toward such efforts as Family Promise, which assists the homeless.
Having worked as a computer programmer, Rosen is accustomed to male-dominated milieus and believes strongly in forging relationships. She told the Forward she’s proud of being among the originators of the House Problem Solving Caucus, with its 50 members split evenly between Democrats and Republicans.
“Our whole mission statement is to find those ways to work across the aisle and to bring the conversation back to the table. We make the joke now that you have to come like Noah’s Ark — you have to come two by two, you have to have a Republican and a Democrat,” she says. “I think we can find some consensus there and show people that we can begin to talk again.
Levi Sanders, New Hampshire District 1, September 11 Primary
Levi Sanders, running to represent average working-class Americans, is no stranger to political campaigns. He unsuccessfully ran for Claremont City Council and his father is Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, who sought the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. The younger Sanders was a senior aide during that campaign and a consultant on his father’s Senate race.
Though he and his father line up on many issues, Levi is quick to say that he and his dad are “two separate and distinct individuals.” The younger Sanders is focusing on the middle and working classes, and looking to bring into the party — or bring back — Donald Trump supporters. In a statement, he said, “it is time to demand that we have a system which represents the 99 percent and not the 1 percent who have never had it so good.”
Sanders, who has worked as a legal services analyst, will focus his campaign on supporting a Medicare-for-all health-care system, tuition-free college and a $15 per hour minimum wage. He is also open to supporting new gun laws.
Sanders’ father is Jewish, and it’s unclear if the young Sanders identifies as Jewish. He apparently prefers to keep his religious beliefs private.
Kim Schrier, Washington District 8, August 7 Primary
Voted Parent Map Magazine’s Best Pediatrician by parents in greater Seattle in 2013, Schrier, 50, left her successful pediatrics practice of 16 years to run for Congress. Like so many others running for office this year, Schrier was spurred by the 2016 election. “I love my family and being a pediatrician, but all that changed after the 2016 election — it rocked my world,” she said at a candidates forum.
Schrier, who has Type 1 diabetes, is running on a platform emphasizing affordable healthcare. “I believe that healthcare is a right, not a privilege,” she says on her website. “I bring knowledge and first-hand experience in what is wrong with our health care system and will work towards the most effective solutions for our district and our nation.”
Fluent in Spanish, she prides herself as a product of public education. She holds degrees in astrophysics and medicine.
Asked at the candidates’ forum about addressing hate crimes and inequality, she said, “We need to establish a level playing field. I know about discrimination because I’m Jewish.”
David Shapiro, Florida District 16, August 28 Primary
David Shapiro, who has spent his life fighting for justice, says he was motivated to run by “our need for representatives in Congress who will stand up for the people, not be afraid to work across the aisle, and do what is in the best interests of the hardworking families they were elected to serve.”
Now 58, Shapiro has been working since he was 11 years old when he began helping out at the family’s dry cleaning business. He worked his way through college and law school in a variety of jobs from bussing tables to selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door.
A personal injury lawyer, he has served on the boards of Temple Emanuel; Children First, an early education head start program; the Sarasota Film Festival; and the West Coast Black Theater Troupe. Shapiro also is a Sarasota Chamber of Congress trustee. Passionate about saving what he refers to as “our most valuable resource,” the environment, he also is committed to making health care more affordable for seniors and the middle class.
Shapiro says, “Throughout my careers in journalism and the law, I have tried to live up to the Jewish communities’ example. For nearly 30 years, I have pursued justice for people against powerful companies. As a Congressman, I intend to help restore American ideals and pursue the path of Tikkun Olum.”
Elissa Slotkin, Michigan District 8, August 7 Primary
Elissa Slotkin brings to her congressional bid a background in national intelligence and security — and farming. She grew up on a beef cattle farm in Michigan — and again lives on the family farm.
Her journey to her candidacy in a sense began the day after she arrived at Columbia University, where she was attending the graduate School of International and Public Affairs. Her second day was 9/11. “When the dust settled, I really knew then that my interest in public service would be more focused on national service,” she told JTA.
By the next year, Slotkin, now 41, was working as a Middle East analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency serving three tours in Iraq over the course of five years. She since has held defense and intelligence roles at the State Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Pentagon. She also was a member of the national security staff at the White House under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Slotkin says she was able to succeed as a national security leader due to the common-sense values she learned growing up in Michigan.