Ted Deutch, the Democratic congressman from Florida, remembers quite a bit from his time at Camp Ramah in the Poconos.
There’s the way he was taught to love Israel, the same love that put him in a position to lead a bipartisan group of lawmakers to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders earlier this month. There’s also his Hebrew language skills, ignited at camp and honed at the University of Michigan. And one would be remiss to neglect his fadeaway jumper, the one that made him the terror of the Ramah courts.
But the memory that explains Deutch’s trajectory as an advocate for the Jews of the United States and the world comes in the form of a little game called “Escape From The Soviet Union.” Yes — this was the 1980s.
The night before the game was played, each camper was assigned a real-life refusenik whose path they would follow. Deutch recalls that the next morning, campers were directed to apply for visas to leave the Soviet Union, only to be harassed, and then relieved of their job, apartment and safety. Counselors playing KGB agents chased them around the “country.”
Decades later, sitting in a congressional hearing across from Natan Sharansky, Deutch couldn’t help but tell the most famous refusenik of them all about the experience; when Deutch later spoke at a Kabbalat Shabbat in Moscow, a place that Jews had once fought to leave, the circle was finally made complete.
“My experience at Ramah, it really does inform everything I do,” Deutch said.
Deutch, 53, grew up in Bethlehem, the youngest of five and the grandson of Belarusian-Jewish immigrants. His older siblings were out of the house by the time he turned 6, and his father, a World War II veteran who fought at the Battle of the Bulge, had retired early.
Consequently, Deutch had a partner to talk about politics with from a young age, and though it could get heated, it was the first instance when public service was presented to him as a lifelong virtue. Still, he could not yet conceive of politics as a profession. Deutch later attended the University of Michigan, where he met his wife, Jill.
Deutch graduated from law school at Michigan in 1990, and he and Jill moved to Washington, D.C., for the first time, where he began to practice law. But they wanted to live closer to his wife’s family in Ohio, so they picked up again to move to Cleveland, and Deutch loved it there. After a few years, his oldest brother visited for Passover.
“He said, ‘I’m sure you’re not interested, but we could use someone who practices the kind of law that you do,’” Deutch recalls. The reason his brother expected a “no” was that the firm was in Boca Raton, Florida.
After having spent most of life questioning why anyone would give up on the seasons of the northeast part of the country, Deutch surprised his brother and himself by saying yes. In 1997, the Deutchs were on the move again.
Deutch was an officer in his local Jewish Federation, and became heavily involved in the AIPAC New Leadership Network. Deutch was also a member of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Young Leadership Council. William Daroff, the senior vice president for public policy and the executive director of the JFNA, said that Deutch “exemplifies the best characteristics of leadership.”
Concurrently, Deutch began to work on political campaigns, with dreams of working on a presidential campaign — one that might propel him back to D.C. Then, Ron Klein, the state senator in his district, decided to run for Congress, leaving an open seat. Deutch saw an opening, and decided that he would run. He won an election that “nobody thought I could win,” he recalled, and quickly gained a reputation as an effective state lawmaker.
One of the legislative accomplishments he remembers most fondly from that time was a bill divesting public pension funds from Iran, the first of its kind in the country. When he’d arrived, his colleagues had cautioned him about trying to affect foreign policy from the state Senate; by 2010, the year he took his seat, his law had become a model for similar legislation across the country.
“He is a fierce ally of all who stand against anti-Semitism, support civil rights, and a strong U.S.-Israel relationship,” said Sheri Zvi, the Florida regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Since 2010, Deutch has distinguished himself as an advocate for Israel and American Jews. He’s the chair of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and International Terrorism, as well as the Committee on Ethics.
But much has changed since he entered Congress.
Advocating for Israel has become more difficult, for starters. The volume and lack of quality of information on social media, Deutch believes, has made the job of Zionists and their allies more difficult, heightening the need for information that lawmakers can rely on. At the same time, the case for why Israel is worth supporting still needs to be made anew.
“At a time when there are people who openly question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, to fundamentally support Israel means supporting a strong, a secure, Jewish state,” he said. “That’s first and foremost. Not just the idea of a state generally, but as one positively worth defending.”
That can be a bit of a lonely place these days, but Deutch’s commitment has not gone unnoticed.
“Ted has been involved in and deeply committed to issues regarding Israel’s security, peace and stability in the Middle East, throughout his entire career in public life,” said Jason Isaacson, chief policy and political affairs officer of the American Jewish Committee.
In 2015, he helped found the Bipartisan Taskforce for Combating Anti-Semitism in response to the rising levels of violence against Jews in Europe. Back then, he said, he never would have thought that what was frightening about their plight would soon become familiar in the U.S.
Now, he feels his work on that front has taken on a new urgency. For him, that meant addressing anti-Semitism, no matter the source; Deutch was one of the Democrats who led the charge in denouncing Rep. Ilhan Omar.
“It’s not a role that I wanted to have,” he said, “but given the challenges of anti-Semitism, it’s one that I’m proud to play.”