U.S. Rep. Susan Wild is used to standing out a little.
Growing up in a Quaker family in Los Angeles, she’d find herself the only kid in class on the Jewish holidays, with all of her classmates off fidgeting in synagogue. The former trial lawyer later converted to Judaism herself. And when she was elected to Congress in 2018, she became the only Jewish national representative in Pennsylvania.
But on June 25, she took the podium in a House floor address that made all that seem like child’s play. To an unusually well-attended session, Wild revealed that her partner, Kerry Acker, had taken his own life just one month earlier.
“Why am I sharing this very personal story?” she asked the assembled members of Congress. “Because we all need to recognize that mental health issues know no boundaries.”
With that speech, Wild, who was interviewed by the Jewish Philly podcast on Sept. 16, put herself in the spotlight in a way that made campaigning seem like a breeze. Now, as she told Jewish Philly hosts Laura Frank and Sabrina Rubin Erdely, she’s out to use her platform to spread the word about suicide prevention.
“There’s such a huge need to do better,” she told them.
Wild took her seat in Pennsylvania’s 7th District in 2018, taking over the final two months of Charlie Dent’s term. Representing a largely working class district has been a challenge, she said — issues relating to trade policy have taken up much more of her time than she anticipated — but it’s been a challenge she’s grateful to accept.
It’s not hard to see the line between Wild’s relationship to her district as a politician and her relationship to Judaism.
Wild told the podcast that part of what drew her to convert was the spirit of generosity she noticed, back from her school days and through her time at American University.
“I like the emphasis in the Jewish religion on tzedakah, for instance, doing well for others, compassion for others. That was the initial attraction,” she said.
Wild’s first husband was Jewish, and they sent their children to a JCC for their early years of school. When their son said that he wanted to have a Bar Mitzvah, Wild took it as a cue to dive in, once in for all. Contemporaneously with her son’s Bar Mitzvah education, which she took upon herself to deliver, she studied for her conversion to Judaism.
“I just felt it was incredibly important,” she said.
That she would mark her own Jewish milestones with those of her family became a bit of a tradition, Rubin Erdely noted; on a 2008 trip to Israel, she and her daughter both became Bat Mitzvot, together.
Even though she wasn’t born into a Jewish family, Wild thinks there was always a little something-something there.
“I said ‘oy’ long before I ever converted,” she joked.
In 2019, Wild finds herself at an interesting time to be a Jew in Congress, as Frank noted. Accusations of the other’s anti-Semitism have been made by both parties and, for the first time in recent memory, support for Israel seems to be wavering among the Democratic Party.
Wild half-rejected the premise. Though she did not downplay the rise of anti- Semitism in the U.S. and the world, she did stress that she believed that anti-Semitism in Congress — from Steve King to Ilhan Omar, as she put it — remains confined to the fringes. Ditto for the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement, and ditto again for those who asked her not to attend a recent trip to Israel. (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, she said, seemed unwilling to talk about reconciliation, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “very dynamic and intelligent and charismatic,” though she doesn’t always agree with him.)
In the meantime, she’s focused on modeling good behavior for her colleagues and constituents.
“Elected officials can do a lot just by being good role models,” she noted.
That brings us to her speech on the House floor. Wild told the Jewish Philly hosts that she’s the type to “find consolation in action,” and that’s why she took the microphone just a month after her partner’s death.
She has used the overwhelmingly positive reaction to her speech to advocate for greater spending on mental health resources, and to talk about her wish to see cultural stigmas related to mental health and suicide erased. She’s pushing for a three-digit suicide hotline number, rather than the unwieldy one that now exists. And she finds new partners every day who want to join in her fight.
Wild didn’t even know if the seats on the House floor would be filled when she gave her speech. Somehow, some way, it went viral.
“I’m glad that it did,” she said.