In the middle of explaining how she came to be a part of Sara Atkins’ campaign team, Abby Jones, a part-time communications professor at Temple University, mentioned that Atkins has been arrested 10 times during her years of activism.
Atkins corrected her. “Eleven times,” she said, laughing.
Atkins, 39, is betting that her record of civil disobedience will propel her to the 17th District’s state Senate seat held by embattled incumbent Democrat Daylin Leach. Though the seat won’t be up until 2020, Atkins believes that her message is going to start resonating with voters once they get to know her. She is running as a Democrat.
“I want to bring ethics back to Pennsylvania,” she said.
Born in Chicago, Atkins was raised in a home that was “somewhere between Conservative and Reform.” Her father, incensed over the voting issues of the 2000 presidential election, became an elections judge, and her grandfather, Jack Rotman, remains a legendary figure in the world of Chicago labor activism for his work on behalf of cabdrivers. She majored in Judaic studies at the University of Arizona, where she and her now-husband, Daniel, both became ba’alei teshuvah.
If her name sounds familiar, you may have read it in the Forward, CNN.com or perhaps even the Jewish Exponent. Her protest at the committee hearings for judicial nominee Brett Kavanaugh was caught on camera, and there are photos of her being dragged from the hearing room as she chanted, “Shame!”
There’s also her health care activism. Atkins is a mother of five, and all of them suffer from various medical maladies requiring care that is highly specific, achingly necessary and, most pertinently, of a high cost. One daughter has an unknown autoimmune disorder, and has been diagnosed with idiopathic anaphylaxis and eosinophilic esophagitis. Her immune system is failing, and one of the methods by which she’s kept alive are biweekly trips to The Johns Hopkins Hospital for shots that can be prohibitively expensive without insurance, Atkins said.
Atkins serves as the director of activism for Torah Trumps Hate, a coalition of Orthodox and “Orthodox-aligned” people who seek to marry progressive politics with their religious values. For Atkins, that’s a simple shidduch.
“The Lubavitcher Rebbe always said, we shouldn’t focus on lashon hora, we should focus on love of thy neighbor,” she said. “How can you love your neighbor if you don’t believe that it’s a human right to have health care? A livable wage?”
Presently a committeeperson for Lower Merion 14-3, she was part of PA Dems Coordinated Campaign ahead of the 2018 primaries, leading canvassing efforts to such success that she was eventually tapped by her superiors to train canvassers.
Some of her policy positions — such as a $15 minimum wage and universal health care — may be national issues, but Atkins believes that it’s up to state legislators to promote them.
On her campaign website, she ticks off progressive boxes related to gun control, reproductive rights and criminal justice reform.
There’s another issue: protections for survivors of sexual assault, which may prove pertinent to her race against Leach. In June, at a protest related to allegations that Leach had inappropriately touched female colleagues and made sexually demeaning comments in their presence, Atkins said that he was “a sexual predator” and “no different than Donald Trump.” When asked if she still stood by those comments, Atkins deflected.
“I don’t really know Sara Atkins,” Leach said in response. “I’m not even sure I’ve ever met her personally.” Regardless, he said, “to put me in the same category as people like Donald Trump is preposterous.”