Jews have played storied roles in Pennsylvania jurisprudence, going back to 1822 when Moses Levy took the bench as the presiding judge of the district court for the city and county of Philadelphia. Levy also happened to be the first Jew to qualify as a lawyer in the United States.
Flash forward almost 200 years, and Pennsylvania’s appellate courts are now well-represented by Jewish jurists. This article speaks with four of the commonwealth’s Superior Court judges and one Supreme Court justice to learn about the role Judaism plays in their lives and their work.
Dubow, the daughter of Phyllis Beck, the first female appellate judge in Pennsylvania, took the bench of the Superior Court in 2016. The values of tikkun olam, with which she was raised, motivated her to go into law.
“The concept of tikkun olam has always been sort of a core principle of mine, and even when I was a lawyer I did it because I felt I could use my legal skills to help people,” she said. “But when you are a lawyer, there is just so much you can do when you are in a courtroom because it is going to be a judge who makes the decision. So, that is one of the reasons that inspired me to become a trial court judge.”
Dubow served as a trial court judge for eight years, but decided to seek a seat on the appellate court to have a greater role in helping those most vulnerable, she said.
“As a trial court judge, you are dealing with vulnerable people every day,” Dubow explained. “You are somewhat limited in what you can do because you have to follow the law as defined by the Superior Court and the Supreme Court, and so I always tried to make decisions that were most helpful to vulnerable people. But sometimes you are limited by the law as to what you can do. So, by being on Superior Court, there are cases in which if the law is not there, I can gently nudge it in an area that helps people who are most vulnerable.”
Her Jewish values, she said, inspire within her a sense of fairness.
“For most Jews, the Holocaust is always in the back of your mind, and the vulnerability of Jews in Germany is always in the back of my mind,” Dubow said. “And so I think that also feeds my sensitivity to those who are vulnerable and also sort of feeds my concern of government overreach.”
Lately, she has been spending much of her free time working with organizations that deal with child welfare issues.
Although she does not experience anti-Semitism on a day-to-day basis at home in Philadelphia, its rise concerns her.
“I am very concerned about the national discourse that is encouraging anti-Semitism at a much more global level,” Dubow said. “It troubles me a lot.”
As a judge, she is limited in what she can speak out about, she explained, “which is often very frustrating. But I feel some comfort with others speaking out about anti-Semitism. I think it is important that everybody be aware that it is out there and it is getting worse. The BDS movement troubles me. Without getting too political about it, I think that it stems at a certain level from anti-Semitism. So I do think that Jews need to speak out about it and protests are good. I think protests get people’s attention, make people aware of the issues.”
“As judges, we are fortunate to use all the knowledge that we have received in training both in Jewish law and secular law,” said Gantman, who has been a Superior Court judge since 2003. “I grew up in an observant household and studied Talmud, Hebrew, Bible and prayers. This legacy taught me to be mindful of others, respectful and humble. I wanted to make the world a better place and to save a little part of the world, tikkun olam. I wanted to pursue justice and truth.”
For most of her legal career, Gantman practiced in juvenile law, domestic law and appellate law.
“As my legal career developed, I thought I would be best suited to be a jurist so that I could continue to rule on cases to make certain that people got fair opportunity, and that is fortunately what I have been able to do on the bench,” she said.
She believes that many Jews go into law for that very reason.
“I think that people want to make a difference, that they want to solve problems,” she said.
Problem-solving and standing up for social justice is the responsibility of not only Jews, but the population at large, according to Gantman.
“I don’t think it is only Jews that have that calling, I think that it is everyone with moral conscience, and I think it is people of every religion,” she said. “One of the things we have to do is be respectful of individuals and allow people to present different points of view, and that is something that you are not seeing so much today. But that is not a new phenomenon. It’s just more discussed today because we have so many more outlets.”
The increase in anti-Semitism worldwide is “problematic,” Gantman said, noting a threat posed by “anti-Zionist” attacks as well.
She has a “deep affection for Israel and the Jewish people and I want to support the right of Israel to live in peace and security. And we are not so far away from when there was so much destruction of the Jewish people. 2020 is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and we are not that far away. My father liberated a camp. Many of our parents were involved in World War II, so we really have the responsibility. You don’t have to agree with everything that Israel does. But Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, and there is like hyperpartisan demonization of political opponents right now. And sometimes people get involved with just saying something that doesn’t necessarily ring true. But we see a tremendously growing threat from the anti-Zionist attack on the existence of the one Jewish state, and that becomes a problem. And BDS is an attempt to strangle the economy of the only democracy in the Middle East.”
Lazarus has been on the Superior Court bench since 2010. Although she was raised in a Jewish home, her family was not “particularly observant, but we were well educated,” she said.
After she married, she and her husband decided “it was very important to us to raise a Jewish family, so we belong to a synagogue. Our children went to Sunday school and Hebrew school. They both went on to Hebrew high school, and they both got teaching certificates to teach in Jewish day schools, which my youngest daughter did.”
Her dedication to the Jewish people runs deep. In 2008, she founded the Louis D. Brandeis Law Society, an organization in Philadelphia for Jewish lawyers and judges.
“We created a mission statement that not only dealt with tikkun olam, but it also dealt with dealing with some of the everyday stresses of being Jewish in a secular world and improving the living for Jewish lawyers and judges.”
When asked how her Jewish identity informs her work, Lazarus referenced another female jurist.
“I always think of Justice (Sonia) Sotomayor, who was asked about her background and what that would do if she got onto the Supreme Court and she said — I’m paraphrasing — ‘a wise Latino woman would bring a different perspective.’ And I think that being Jewish and understanding tikkun olam, and understanding Jewish values and the Jewish way of looking at justice certainly informs that.
“In my office currently I have a painting that was commissioned for me by my husband when I went on the bench, and it is a quote from Ecclesiastes about not judging the rich differently than the poor, or the mighty differently than the weak. And I think that does inform how you look at the law.”
Like many of her Jewish colleagues, she is “absolutely” concerned about the rising tide of anti-Semitism in this country.
“I think there are so many parallels between what was going on in Germany in the late 1930s and I think that some of the people in our government are fanning the flames and encouraging people to play to their worst selves,” Lazarus said.
When McLaughlin became a judge for the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in 2011, she was not a Jew. Seven years later, when she took her seat on the bench of the Superior Court, she had converted to Judaism.
“I think converting to Judaism affected by entire life, not just my calling on the bench,” McLaughlin said. “To me, the history of Jewish thought affected me coming from the outside.”
Although she is married to a Jewish man, McLaughlin converted “because I wanted to convert,” she said. “If he had asked me, I wouldn’t have.”
Her conversion to Judaism, she said, was “an intellectual experience as well as a spiritual experience. Sitting with the rabbi, then going through the mikvah, it was just an incredible experience to me. Just furthering my education even more, because that’s how I look at it. I look at it as really an education.”
McLaughlin came from a devout Catholic family. Two of her aunts are nuns. Still, she was supported by her relatives in her decision to become a Jew.
“I always say it is important to have faith,” she said. “No matter what you do, no matter what your position is in life, I can’t imagine not having faith. And to me, Judaism is so much more than just your faith because it is your Jewish life, it is a huge family, and that’s how I see it.”
Judaism informs her work, she said, because “it is based on laws. It’s the laws that govern our society, the laws that are the foundation of our national conscience. So that in and of itself makes Judaism have an impact on what I do on a daily basis.”
Jews have a responsibility to lead by example and by deed, said McLaughlin.
“I think that the Jewish people stand for that, being a revolutionary. We take our cues from Abraham. We each define our own chapter in our life. That’s what he did. So when I say we each have to teach and lead by example and deed, I believe that is part of our faith, and I believe that is what Jewish people do, what they had to do to survive, against all odds.”
Israel is important to McLaughlin, who considers herself a Zionist, “and proud to be.” Her son, who is not Jewish, has studied in the Jewish state, volunteered on a kibbutz “and fell in love with Israel.”
She also recognizes the dangers anti-Semitism poses to the Jewish people, and sees Israel as a potential refuge if things get out of hand.
“We are not in a good place for the Jewish people,” she said. “It could be really our lives someday, you don’t know.”
Wecht, who was born and raised in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, has served on the highest court of the commonwealth since 2016. He attributes his strong attachment to Jewish peoplehood and to Israel in large part to the education he received at the old Hebrew Institute. He has visited Israel many times, and has made sure that his four children have also spent time in the Jewish state.
“Israel is a major part of my life,” Wecht said. “Throughout my life I have been reading about Jewish history, Israel and the Jewish people. These subjects are something I think about daily.”
Being Jewish did not influence his career decisions in “any overt or conscious way,” he said. “I couldn’t speak for other judges who are Jewish, what influences them, but speaking for me, there was no conscious linkage between being Jewish and seeking to become a judge or continuing to be a judge.”
When Wecht is not at work, he spends “a lot of time reading and thinking about issues important to the Jewish community and Israel.” Although his position on the bench prohibits him from being involved in the political process, he is able to write and to teach as part of his judicial role, including about the resurgence of anti-Semitism, a topic with which he is very concerned.
Last April, he was interviewed in Tablet magazine, discussing in detail, and in strong terms, his views on the rising threat of anti-Semitism. Included in that interview was Wecht’s criticism of political leaders who fail to call out anti-Semitism. When questioned about anti-Semitic rhetoric coming from members of Congress, specifically Rep. Ilhan Omar, Wecht responded: “I think any member who engages in such rhetoric should be disciplined. Period.”
While Wecht cannot lobby or take an active role in the political process, he urges others to do so.
“So whether people want to be in a party, or not be in a party, people should be involved in the world, and Jews especially should be involved in sticking up for themselves and sticking up for the Jewish people and sticking up for the Jewish state in whatever role or whatever party or whatever movement they choose to be involved in,” he said. “But it has never been a good thing in Jewish history for Jews to stand back and not speak up for themselves and not speak up for their fellow Jews, which is very important. So all of Israel is responsible for one another. That’s from the Talmud, and it’s very important and it bothers me tremendously when Jewish people do not perceive the needs and the problems and challenges that confront Jews anywhere in the world, when they don’t feel that is something that impacts them as well. I think that Jews should never live in their own cocoon, and they should learn the lessons of Jewish history.”
Toby Tabachnick is a senior staff writer with the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.