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Ticket surprises, excites local Jews


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 9, 2000

For Dorothy Cohen, who remembers a time when customers pelted her with anti-Semitic slurs, this has been a week of recompense.

Like many members of the local Jewish community, she is greeting the announcement of Sen. Joseph Lieberman as the Democratic vice presidential candidate with pride and surprise.

"When I heard that, chills came through me," said Mrs. Cohen, former owner of 250 Mae's Fabrics stores nationwide.

"I respect Al Gore so much to have the strength to go ahead and pick him as his vice president," said Mrs. Cohen, 69.

Indeed, while Gore's historic decision has brought praise from some quarters, many in the Jewish committee say Lieberman's integrity and experience make him an eminently suitable candidate for the Democratic ticket.

"I was delightfully surprised. I had thought of the other candidates and I thought he was low on the so-called totem pole," said retired Rabbi David J. Susskind of St. Petersburg. "I certainly feel that he would make a significant contribution to the ticket."

Joel Wasser of Congregation Kol Ami in North Tampa said Lieberman's record is exemplary.

"I would have been shocked and disappointed if the fact that Sen. Lieberman is a religious Jew stood in his way. . . . I'm pleased about what it says about openness in America, and we as Jewish people really have to take a look to see if we agree with his policies."

Even some who disagree with the Democratic Party are pleased with the selection.

"As a Jewish person, I feel great that it has happened," said Alan Swartz, a CPA from Pinellas Park and a self-described conservative Republican.

While acknowledging Lieberman's assets, Rabbi Irwin Cutler of Beth Tefillah/Jewish Community Center of West Pasco said many Jewish politicians are in prominent positions.

"It's nice for that high office, but we have others who are equally qualified," Cutler said.

In a phone interview from West Hartford, Conn., where she was visiting her mother, Linda Lerner, a Democrat on the Pinellas County School Board, was ecstatic.

"I am very excited because I think he is such a good candidate and I'm glad that a Jewish candidate has been nominated, but that should not be the issue," she said.

Mrs. Lerner's mother, Anne Shamroth, 89, like many elderly Jews, remembers the stigma of being Jewish.

"I hate to say it, but I couldn't believe it," said Mrs. Shamroth of Lieberman's selection. "I guess we've always had to struggle and there have always been obstacles. . . . During the Depression, I would go to the employment agencies and there were signs that they were not taking any applications from Jews."

Cecile Berko, a Realtor and president of Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg, said Lieberman's religious affiliation should not be a disadvantage.

"It's a very exciting time for him and the country," she said. "It is a wonderful opportunity for him as a politician and as a human being. It has given him an opportunity to educate people in some of the ways of Judaism. He has the talent to combine his commitment to his faith and his country and I think that speaks highly of him as an individual."

Wasser, of Congregation Kol Ami in Tampa, agreed.

"I think Sen. Lieberman has proven that where one's own convictions are strong and serious that you can accomplish what you want," Wasser said. "He has been able to maintain his personal religious observance without that preventing him from ascending to great political heights, and I think that's a very important message to all people of faith."

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