1/18 Update: Pesner has decided not to run for U.S. Senate.
NEWTON, Mass. — The field of possible candidates for Sen. John Kerry’s not-yet-vacant U.S. Senate seat continues to dwindle. On Tuesday, Democratic Rep. Michael Capuano announced he would not run if Kerry is confirmed as secretary of state. On the Democratic side, that leaves just Rep. Ed Markey officially in the running. But Rep. Stephen Lynch is also thinking about joining the race. And now a non-politician, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, says he’s seriously considering running.
‘We Are Obligated To Pursue Justice’
Pesner’s car has a 26.2 bumper sticker. He and his wife, lawyer Dana Gershon, both ran the Boston Marathon. He coaches soccer, but running is his preferred exercise because he can do his morning run in 45 minutes, and with four daughters he doesn’t have a lot of free time.
“Juliette is the big girl,” Pesner said, showing me a photo. “She’s 14. Noa is 11 and Cate and Bobbie. And they’re amazing. I coached my middle daughter, Noa’s, soccer team for three years until it was time for Bobbie and Cate, then I started coaching their soccer team, which I did last year.
“I actually think you learn as much standing on the soccer field talking to other parents as you do in reading The Boston Globe in the morning, because it’s in those conversations when families are comfortable and in an environment where they can really talk about their aspirations for their kids, what they aspire to for their communities and their neighborhoods.”
Pesner offers coffee. I decline but he insists. He says his upbringing won’t let him have a guest in his house without making sure the guest accepts something to eat or drink, so I say yes to the coffee and the black-and-white half moon cookies.
Sitting at his kitchen table, Pesner and I have an animated conversation. But when I turn the recorder on there’s a transformation. To respond to my questions Pesner closes his eyes and summons his answers, which flow out like passionate sermons. His upbringing was filled with stories from his grandmother, who emigrated from Russia at the age of 16.
“She told me once that she witnessed the rabbi of her town dragged to his death, tied by his beard to the back of a horse,” Pesner said. “And I think about myself as a rabbi in America, now today, the opportunity that I have to serve this country.”
It’s an obligation to give back that the 44-year-old says impels him to consider running for U.S. Senate. He cites several priorities: public schools, access to health care, keeping America a nation of immigrants, equal rights for gays and lesbians.
“I became a rabbi, in part, not just because of the legacy of my grandparents who came to this country, but because of the experience that I had of a congregation and a community, the way it cares for folks,” Pesner said. “My father died when I was 14 years old, so my mother was a single working mom and the synagogue and the rabbis surrounded us with love and care and compassion.”
It was growing up in Greenwich Village that Pesner says taught him the importance of building a more just society.
“The Reform Jewish movement that I’m part of takes very seriously the notion of tikkun olam, the Hebrew expression which means repairing the world,” Pesner said. “We are obligated to pursue justice.”
In 1995, Pesner moved to Boston to pursue his rabbinic training at Temple Israel. As a leader of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, he pushed for universal health care coverage. That kind of organizing would help him in a campaign. Running for the Senate requires a grassroots network and money. Pesner is confident he can draw from his work at GBIO and the Union for Reform Judaism, where he is currently taking a leave of absence from his post as senior vice president. Those organizations have given him local and national networks of people on whom to draw for volunteers and money.
“And so I look forward to the opportunity to continue, as I have for most of my career, to invite people to join with me not only with their time and their talent and their energy and their vision, but also with their financial resources,” Pesner said.
Pesner has been getting advice, but he won’t say from whom. He says he expects to make up his mind about running soon.