‘Born with a moral compass’

‘Born with a moral compass’

Loretta Weinberg, about to retire from the state Senate, looks back

Good friends Loretta Weinberg and Steven Goldstein.
Good friends Loretta Weinberg and Steven Goldstein.

“The Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, they’re only made of clay…”

But Loretta Weinberg, well, until now she’s been here to stay.

Now, though — in a display of calm common sense that has marked her career — she’s decided that it’s time to retire.

She’ll be leaving office — she’s now New Jersey’s State Senate majority leader — at the end of this term. She’s tired of talking about herself, she said — it seems almost as if she’s delivering her own eulogy — but in a recent interview in her Teaneck office she talked about her long career in public service, and how her Jewish values informed it.

As we wrote in a long profile in 2014, Loretta Isaacs was born in 1933; she grew up first on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx and then, after her parents’ divorce, was whisked entirely across the country, across time zones, to Beverly Hills. Her mother, Reva Isaacs, was a feisty, entrepreneurial single parent, who exemplified resilience. Loretta began college at the University of California at Berkeley — this was at least a decade before Berkeley was Berkeley — and graduated from UCLA without having been politically active. (And in that lack of political activity, she was representative of her generation at the time.)

She recalls that her first vote for president was cast for Adlai Stevenson. (He lost.) She moved to New York, lived on the Upper West Side, and met her soulmate, Irwin Weinberg. Ms. Weinberg worked, but she did not have a career, as was conventional for newly married women then. She did keep getting better and better jobs, though, almost despite herself. She was that smart.

The Weinbergs had two children, Danny and Francine; Loretta stayed home with them, and in 1963, with a one- and a two-year-old, the family home soon became Teaneck. The town already had many Jews, but the community was not the magnetic center of Orthodox life that it since has become. The Weinbergs joined a local Reform synagogue, Temple Emeth; Loretta still is an active and influential member there.

Teaneck was politically active, full of young progressives, many of them Jewish. “It was a hotbed of civic activism,” Ms. Weinberg said in 2014. “This was the 1960s.” The red-hot issues then were women’s rights (called women’s lib back then), civil rights, and of course the war in Viet Nam. Ms. Weinberg was a full-time, stay-at-home mother — a role she loved — but soon she got drawn into politics. She volunteered for Lyndon Johnson on a national level; locally, she fought for school integration. “I had a very high-level job, distributing literature,” she said. In the end, “Teaneck was the first town in the country to voluntarily go and vote to integrate the schools,” she said.

But it wasn’t until 1975, about a decade after the Weinbergs had moved to Teaneck, that the Democrats gained power in Bergen County and as a direct result Loretta got an official job. She was the board of freeholder’s clerk and then an assistant county administrator. She was able to make policy; “I helped start the first domestic violence shelter,” she told us in 2014. “I wrote the first affirmative action program for any county in the state of New Jersey.” Working with her good friend Jeremiah O’Connor, the freeholder director, the town was able to apply for federal block grants by convincing other towns, despite New Jersey’s fiercely held belief in home rule, to join as a region, therefore becoming big enough to qualify for those grants.

Loretta Weinberg speaks at a Temple Emeth gala. (Barbara Balkin)

In 1990, Ms. Weinberg ran her first race, for a seat on the Teaneck town council. She won. In 1992, she was nominated to the state’s General Assembly, to fill the seat left by the illness and resulting resignation of her good friend Bennett Mazur. She stayed in the assembly for 13 years. In 2004, she won her seat in the state Senate, and she’s been there ever since. Her tenure will end with this month and this year.

She’s lived through a great deal. On the personal side, she’s now a grandmother; her daughter, son-in-law, and grandson and granddaughter all live in California, although her son still is on the East Coast. Her husband, Irwin, died in 1999, and she misses him still.

Professionally, she lived through Bridgegate, the scandal that saw Governor Chris Christie’s aides eventually found guilty and imprisoned for closing the local Fort Lee lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge as a way to get back at the town’s mayor, a Democrat, for not having supported Mr. Christie in his successful second run for governor. The story did not die, but in fact grew into a full-fledged, meme-worthy disaster, for many reasons, but chief among them was Ms. Weinberg’s refusal to let it go.

Mr. Christie responded to Ms. Weinberg’s tenacity by wishing that someone be moved to “take a bat” to her; she responded to that by keeping two little bats in her office. They’re not weapons, but they are potent reminders.

Now, as her career winds down, Ms. Weinberg is being showered with honors and dinners and grateful thanks. She has been responding with joy, but also with honesty; she cannot help but talk about what’s going on around her. She said that a few days after Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) had been censured by the House for his tweets showing a cartoon version of himself murdering Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and swinging a sword at President Joe Biden, and only two Republicans joined the Democrats in that censure, she was honored by the American Labor Museum for her work supporting labor unions. “I got up and talked about it,” she said. “How can you not speak out against such a travesty?

“I have always been someone who spoke out against my own party when I thought they were on the wrong path — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — because that is what you have to do. You have to speak out about the value of democracy, about feeding the poor, about taking care of the vulnerable.

“This is what our country is for.”

Her belief in those values comes from her Jewish values, she said.

She’s struck by how few Jews there are in the legislature, she added. “We have a Black caucus and a Latino caucus, but we have only three Jews in the legislature, and just a few in the assembly. That’s surprising, considering the numbers in which we vote.

Loretta Weinberg and one of her many acolytes, activist, lawyer, and rabbinical student Steven Goldstein, address a rally.

“I don’t know why,” she added.

She thinks that much of what she’s done, and still does, relates to Jewish values. She’s working on a bill to set up a study commission to look at reparations for slavery, “which we as a Jewish community should understand in terms of the Holocaust and Holocaust survivors, and returning to some of these folks things that were stolen from them.” She’s teaming with faith leaders, “two rabbis, a Unitarian Universalist, and someone from the NAACP.

“It’s just a study commission, not set up to do anything,” she said.

“One of the faith leaders said it would be a good vehicle for New Jersey to have discussions about race, and one of the rabbis” — her own rabbi, in fact, Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth — “said that we should look at Holocaust survivors and how we feel that they should be made whole, although of course we know they can’t possibly be.

“The word ‘reparations’ is a classic example of something that raises all sorts of negative reactions, but I felt that those of us whose family members survived the Holocaust or escaped the horrors in the places they came from before that should understand that at least a discussion around this issue is appropriate.”

Over the course of her career, Ms. Weinberg said, maybe one of the areas where her Jewish values were most clear was in her fight for a bill that would ensure that new mothers could have 48 hours in a hospital before insurance companies threw them out. “When I had my babies, you could stay for five days. If you were in a Jewish hospital and you had a boy, you could stay until the bris.

“That might sound excessive, but by the time I had my second — they were 14 months apart — I went into labor at 6 at night, got to the hospital at 11 o’clock, and I made my husband drive around the block until midnight so I could have the full five days.

“Fast forward; if you had a baby in the morning, you’d be sent home by evening.” Christine Todd Whitman was the governor then; she worked with Ms. Whitman, a Republican, and another Republican woman, Assemblywoman Rose Hecht, and “we did it together.

“When we had to sell the bill, we would say things like ‘breeesssttt feeding’ or ‘bleeeeding,’ until the guys on the committee said ‘Okay, we get it.’”

Ms. Weinberg presents a resolution to Temple Emeth’s Cantor Ellen Tillem. (Barbara Balkin)

The bill — probably not for that reason, but still — passed.

“That was in the days when Democrats and Republicans worked together,” she said ruefully.

She recalled her great friend and ally Sister Patricia Lynch, the CEO of Holy Name Hospital, who also was instrumental in the fight for women’s health. “Hillary Clinton said that Sister Patricia was the exact person you want in the proverbial foxhole with you,” Ms. Weinberg said. “She was right. She was.”

She also fought hard for marriage equality, and for LGBT rights; she pushed for rights for the transgender community long before the community was visible to much of the rest of the world.

She worked with Babs Saperstein, the Jersey City-born Jewish trans activist who worked in Democratic politics on both the national and local level. “We were in my office, talking about marriage equality, when my granddaughter Shayna was born,” in California, Ms. Weinberg said. “I got the call, and I put it on speaker, and we all heard her cry.

“We had been talking about marriage equality, and Babs said ‘I am a grandfather.’” Her first grandchildren were born before she transitioned. “Subsequently she became a grandmother,” Ms. Weinberg said.

The first bill about marriage equality to be passed was for something far smaller — domestic partnership. “That was the first step on the road. Domestic partnership only affected state employees and pension rights. It was a tiny, tiny step forward.

“When the bill passed and signed, I was invited to a big rally in front of the town hall in Maplewood. There must have been 1,000 people there. I was so overwhelmed. I have never done anything that was so small in terms of its affect that made so many people happy.

“And that road was intertwined with one of the happiest moments in my life as I became a grandmother for the first time.”

A second-grader’s 1993 tribute to her phonetically spelled hero.

She also fought for penalties for sexual harassment, another battle that took a long time but eventually she won.

Ms. Weinberg attributes her success to something that could be seen as a weakness. “Maybe it’s shame on me, but I never entered this with any big picture in mind, and that’s maybe why this has been such an exciting and interesting road to be on. I just faced every issue as it came up, and that probably enabled me to stay longer.

“If I’d kept my eye on the big picture, I might have given up. Big change is almost impossible, but it’s all in the little steps.

“I hope that more risk-takers will come into the legislature. More people who are not timid, so will find an issue, whether it’s women’s access to health care or making it easier to vote, and say this might be unpopular, I will get some pushback from my colleagues, but I am willing to take the step and move it ahead. I will not be afraid.

“That’s the only reason to be in public office.

She looks back at the time when Democrats and Republicans could work together. “I am most surprised at the Republican women,” she said. “We disagreed on a lot of issues, but we always had plenty to agree on, in areas like women’s health or having babies. I don’t understand why they don’t get together, at least in New Jersey, and take their party back. I think New Jersey’s a good place for that.”

She talked about meeting Mr. Biden when he was vice president. “I was at a conference on gun safety at the White House,” she said. “I was introduced as being from New Jersey, and being one of the sponsors of a gun safety bill, but I was in a hurry to get a train back because there was some issue before my condo board.

“I had an aide with me, and we rushed out to Union Station, and we bumped into him.” Mr. Biden, that is. “I always carry a little autograph book for my grandkids. I get someone to sign and then I write a little story about who it was and why he was famous.

“Biden recognized me, and asked if there was anything he could do. I wanted to ask him for a ride to Union Station,” given Mr. Biden’s famous reliance on trains, but she couldn’t. That would have been too much. “So I showed him the book, and he asked me about each one of the children. He wrote ‘I know you will have a great bat mitzvah’ to Shayna, and he wrote about Jonah wanting to be a rocket scientist — by the way, he still does — and I don’t know what made me say this, but I said ‘I know what it’s like to lose somebody to cancer,’ and the two of us were teary-eyed.

Loretta Weinberg and Steven Goldstein

“That’s what we were doing at the moment that my aide took a picture of us with his cellphone. And we joke about how his pants leg is too short so his leg shows.”

Ms. Weinberg has walls in her office covered with photos. “This is probably the most cherished picture on the famous people wall,” she said.

“He is the most amazing political person, in the way he relates to others.

“And by the way, we did miss the train. And by the time we got onto the next train, who walks up the aisle but Chris Christie? He must have walked by me three times and didn’t acknowledge me. Finally I said to the cop with him, ‘I won’t hurt him. And finally he stopped. I went on Facebook and said ‘Look who I saw.’ A reporter checked, and it turns out that Christie hadn’t registered about being out of state — he was supposed to — and it turned into a big front page in the Ledger, and it was all my fault.

“And of course I hadn’t known anything about his not signing out. And it was all because I missed the first train because of that moment with Joe Biden.”

After she retires, Ms. Weinberg plans to “put my feet up. I will serve on some boards; I have been invited to a few, and I am sorting that out. But I will sit back and give advice to people, even if they haven’t asked me for it. Hopefully I will stay involved with the Democratic party locally.”

She will spend a lot of time visiting her family in California, but she does not plan to move there. Her life is in New Jersey. Her friends are here. “And I know people who knew my husband well, and can share stories about him,” she said.

“I’m not feeling sad about leaving my elected position, but I am sad about not having gotten done what we wanted to get done. I am touched by people who are willing to spend their valuable time lobbying for things they care about, and sometimes I am disappointed when I was not able to help.”

She reported what she’d told the group of faith leaders she’s met with recently. “I don’t have a magic wand in my closet, and if I did it would be you who’d have to infuse it with magic power.”

Loretta Weinberg and then vice-president Joe Biden talk about loss outside the White House.

Her ability to do what she did in state government came from her being a regular person, Ms. Weinberg said. “I have always gone to the supermarket, and I remember someone once saying to me, ‘My God! I am so impressed seeing my state representative doing her own marketing.’ And I said, ‘Oh! Is there someone who can do it for me?’

“Both my late husband and I led a normal middle-class-Teaneck life. I often kidded that one of my husband’s desires was to lead a quiet, peaceful life, and I told him that he made the wrong marriage commitment. I never quite lived up to that aspect of our marriage vows.

“I think that this kind of normal existence is why I feel so close to people.”

Rabbi Sirbu agreed. “Loretta has a passion for families, and for instilling her Jewish values in the work of the state government without ever being heavy-handed about it. She is clearly inspired by her Jewish heritage, and by the Jewish view of social justice that so many Reform Jews hold.”

She’s also deeply involved in the community at Emeth, he continued. “She is a fixture at every one of our Temple galas. She will show up with a resolution honoring our honoree. She is never too formal about it; she makes a point of saying ‘I will skip the whereases and go straight to the resolves, because that is the important part.’

“And she reads it with panache.

“She’s always there for the temple,” he continued. She has all these obligation to her constituents and her colleagues in the Senate, yet if we ask her for advice or to share her expertise, she always makes time for us. That is the most amazing thing.

“And almost every year at the high holidays, she has the honor of reading the prayer for our country. People take comfort in knowing that someone who has been entrusted with so much responsibility reads that prayer from the machzor every year.

Ms. Weinberg with her grandchildren, Shayna and Jonah, in her Teaneck office.

“She has a tremendous following among our social action committee – in most cases they are longtime temple members and longtime Teaneck residents — and they admire everything that she has done, and the way that she has dedicated her career to them. It is not about reading the resolutions or the prayer for them. It is the way she has dedicated so many decades to the values that we all share.

Steven Goldstein, who now lives in Fort Lee but spent nearly two decades in Teaneck, is so multi-accomplished that it’s hard to introduce him. He’s a lawyer, an LGBT and Jewish activist, an author, a television producer, among other things; now he’s a rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers.

He also considered himself a son of Loretta Weinberg; she has provided him with the unconditional love that his own parents did not give him, and he gives it back to her. In fact, he dedicated his book, “The Turn On: How the Powerful Make Us Like Them — From Washington to Wall Street to Hollywood,” published by Harper Business, to her.

And he is far from alone in his feelings for her, he said.

“What I have realized over the years is that she has been a mother figure to so many people. It goes beyond her being the legislator who is the Jewish patron saint of oppressed people. There is a very deep bond between Loretta and the constituencies she helps, which is almost every constituency out there.

“Everyone in politics is really happy that she is retiring on an extraordinarily high note and will get to spend more time with her wonderful family. No one deserves that more than Loretta does.

“But we all are a little sad. It’s not that she’s going away. I have no doubt that we’ll all be calling Loretta on a lot of matters.

“But it is the end of an era for all of us who visit Trenton. She is our hero and she is our mom. For so many of us growing up in the LGBT community who had challenges of family and societal acceptance, Loretta was and continues to be the mom who fills that gap. And Loretta loves all her children, both the biological children and her adopted children, nonjudgmentally.

“Except like any good Jewish mom, she has limits. Loretta absolutely knows how to nag.

“The thing about Loretta is that she is unbelievably loyal to the people she loves,” Mr. Goldstein continued. It was particularly important to him, as a young gay man; her steadfast commitment to the community back then took courage.

“Loretta puts her neck out not because she views it as some kind of favor, but because doing the right thing comes instinctively to her. She was born with a moral compass the likes of which I have seen in few other people.

“She is for many of us our greatest teacher, not because she consciously lectures to us but because she is our role model and we watch her closely.

“And here’s something else that is very underrated,” he continued. “Beneath the Jewish grandmother façade, and I mean this as the ultimate compliment, is the toughest and most savvy political strategist you will ever meet. Loretta is brilliant both intellectually and as a political strategist who has taught many of us to negotiate power.

“The last several years of her career have been unique. She began as a progressive activist and became the majority leader in the New Jersey State legislature, which required her to be an insider in the corridors of power. More than anyone else I know, Loretta has had to navigate being a progressive political activist with being a power broker. She has had to balance how not to sacrifice one for the other, and to make both of them work.

“That takes unbelievable skill. I can’t think of anyone else in politics with the heart of a progressive activist reformer who also has managed to rise so far in the power structure without sacrificing her values. That is a tightrope act that is impossible to do — and she has done it.”

There is one big personal loss in Ms. Weinberg’s retirement that Mr. Goldstein will feel sharply.

“I am a political junkie and progressive, and when I moved from the Upper West Side to Teaneck, I moved to District 37 because I wanted to be represented by Loretta,” he said. She’s still his representative in Fort Lee; that town tends to get redistricted, but now it’s hers. “If it had not been in her district, I wouldn’t have moved here,” he said. “I won’t be in her district come January, and I don’t like that very much.”

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