Specter remembered as an iconoclast who enjoyed going toe to toe with tyrants

During his 30 years in the clubby confines of the U.S. Senate, Arlen Specter never lost his acerbic prosecutorial zeal, friends and associates say.

The insistent questions, the commitment to independence that made the longtime Pennsylvania senator a critical player in recent U.S. history, ultimately did in his career. In his 2010 bid for a sixth term, Specter lost the support of both Democrats and Republicans.

Specter, who had been the longest-serving U.S. senator from his state, died Sunday of complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 82.

His iconoclasm was his brand, from the outset of his career, when he made a name for himself as the young Philadelphia assistant district attorney on the Warren Commission who first postulated that a single bullet hit both President John F. Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally.

[Related: Former US Senator Arlen Specter dies of cancer at 82]

And he wore his independence as a badge of honor: The pro-choice Republican who helped fell Robert Bork’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, and then ensured Clarence Thomas’ ascension by leading what many liberal groups saw as the smearing of Anita Hill, a one-time aide to Thomas who had accused the former head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of sexually harassing her. The pro-Israel stalwart who enjoyed his one-on-ones with some of the Middle East’s most bloodstained tyrants.

Running for district attorney in Philadelphia in 1965, he left the Democratic Party, but returned in 2009, frustrated with what he said was the Republican Party’s lurch rightward. Specter the Democrat helped pass President Obama’s health care reforms.

“He would tell me, ‘Every morning I wake up I look in the mirror and I see the toughest guy in politics,’ ” recalled Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America who first lobbied and then befriended Specter.

Specter, who represented Pennsylvania in the Senate from 1981 to 2011, was shaped by his childhood as the only Jewish kid in his class in a small Midwestern town, Russell, Kan., said David Brog, a longtime aide to Specter who eventually rose to be his chief of staff.

“He was a tough Jew,” Brog said. Specter’s upbringing — helping out his father, a peddler and scrap metal business owner, when he was barely beyond toddler age — was a factor in his pro-Israel leadership, Brog said.

“He saw a little of Israel in himself as the only Jew in his class in Russell,” he said.

Although his sisters were Orthodox Jewish, Specter himself was not outwardly religious, though he had a strong sense of Jewish identity.

Brog noted that on his visits to the Jewish state, Specter would make a point of visiting the grave of his father, who came to the United States from what is now Ukraine, and who wished to be buried in Israel.

Specter was a congressional leader in advancing the cause of Soviet Jews, recalled Mark Levin, who directs NCSJ, the former National Council on Soviet Jewry.

“He had a particular interest in addressing these issues through legal means,” Levin said, particularly by leveraging international human rights laws. Specter would grill his interlocutors from the Soviet Jewry activist movement, asking them to come up with new avenues to leverage the Soviet Union and other European states.

“He wanted to know what more could be done, at the most difficult time when so few people were getting out,” Levin said. “What more could we do, whom do we need to speak to, what do we need to focus on? He was tough but fair.”

Specter also helped preserve the Lautenberg Amendment, named for Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), which eased immigration for refugees from persecution. Designed as a way to advance the exodus of Soviet Jews, Specter extended the amendment to minorities from other nations, including Iran.

“A prescient leader, he understood early on that religious minorities within Iran needed special protection,” said a statement from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. “The senator never forgot his Jewish roots, and his legacy within the Jewish community is great.”

Specter throughout his career was a pro-Israel leader, in recent years leading efforts to condition aid to the Palestinian Authority on its peace process performance. He also aimed to protect Jewish students on campuses from anti-Israel harassment.

An array of Jewish and pro-Israel groups mourned his passing.

“Time and time again, Sen. Specter worked to ensure that America’s ally had the resources necessary to defend herself and protect U.S. interests in the Middle East,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said in a statement. “He was a good friend of our organization and a leading architect of the congressional bond between our country and Israel.”

The Israeli Embassy in Washington called Specter “ an unswerving defender of the Jewish State and a stalwart advocate of peace.”

Yet Specter also courted the region’s tyrants, including Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the Assads in Syria. He longed for a role brokering peace between Israel and Syria, even after his departure from the Senate.

“He visited these tyrants and he was convinced that he could convince them to moderate their policies,” Klein said. “And as we know, he never did.”

Brog said that Specter relished, from his days as a prosecutor, the challenge of going toe to toe with bad guys and getting them to stand down.

“He and Hafez Assad would sit for hours on end drinking tea, seeing who would need to go for a bathroom break first,” Brog said, referring to the late Syrian strongman and father of the country's current ruler, Bashar Assad.

More seriously, Brog said, Specter was committed to creating an environment friendly to peacemaking for Israel by forging a deal with its most recalcitrant neighbor.

“The prize was, if you could get Syria, the most extreme of Israel's neighbors, to sign a peace deal, you could create a climate in the region,” he said.

Specter’s independence took a toll on his staff, Brog said.

“Every single vote he wanted a briefing on the merits without just knowing how the party wanted the vote,” he said.

Specter was an exacting boss, Brog said, and notorious for sending staffers packing.

“Those of us who stayed with him saw this as a very good thing,” said Brog, who now serves as executive director of Christians United for Israel. “I look at my professional standards from before and after, and I see how I grew as a professional.”

Nominees for the federal bench were a regular target of his difficult questions, said Sammie Moshenberg, the Washington director of the National Council of Jewish Women.

“He was always independent and was proud of the fact that he went with his conscience,” she said.

Moshenberg found his tough questions gratifying when Specter grilled nominees on reproductive rights, but recalled being “infuriated” when he accused Hill of perjuring herself in accusing Thomas of sexual harassment.

“I remember standing in the Senate reception room waiting for him to vote and thanking him at times, and expressing disappointment at other times,” she said. “Many times I got to thank him.”

As the political climate grew more polarized, Specter found himself assailed by the left and the right. In 2004 he barely fended off a Republican primary challenge from his right by Rep. Pat Toomey.

Five years later, realizing he would likely not be able to beat Toomey again, Specter switched parties, saying the GOP had “moved far to the right.” Yet the Democratic Party proved no more welcoming; he lost in the 2010 primary to Rep. Joe  Sestak, who in turn was defeated by Toomey in the general election.

The Jewish affiliates of both parties issued statements commemorating Specter’s career. Each emphasized different aspects of his career — the National Jewish Democratic Council called him a “crucial voice of moderation” and the Republican Jewish Coalition said he was a “staunch supporter of Israel.”

But the groups echoed one another in describing Specter’s higher calling: The RJC noted that he was a “devoted public servant,” and the NJDC called him a “consummate public servant.”

From Valley to Vegas, Phillip Wells is remembered

It was Patrick Hoffman’s first time in a gay bar, and he was terrified. Until he met Phillip Wells.

Wells was tending bar at the Rainbow Club West in Knoxville, Tenn., that night some 10 years ago, and he flashed Hoffman his signature oversized smile.

“I wasn’t old enough to drink, so I walked up to the bar and ordered a soda. And Phil said, ‘This is your first time here, isn’t it?’ And he introduced himself and he had that big grin. He just had a way of making everyone feel welcome,” Hoffman said.

Last fall, Wells, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, was gunned down while tending another bar, this time at The Garage in Las Vegas, in the early-morning hours of Nov. 14. Tracy Kauffman, Wells’ ex-boyfriend, was arrested hours after the incident for allegedly unloading two clips into Wells.

Kauffman was scheduled to appear at an arraignment in a lower court in Clark County, Nev., on March 20 and expected to enter a plea, according to the Clark County district attorney’s office. Kauffman’s attorney, a public defender, could not be reached for comment.

On March 16 — what would have been Wells’ 37th birthday — Wells’ mother and stepfather and an army of friends dedicated a bench and tree in Wells’ memory at Sunset Breeze park in Las Vegas.

Wells’ friends also a threw a “Night of 1,000 Dollys” show at the Escape Lounge in Las Vegas in Well’s memory, encouraging everyone to come dressed in something Dolly Parton, the object of Wells’ obsession.

“He was very passionate about anything that he loved,” said Jeremy Logan, one of many friends from Knoxville who flew to Los Angeles for the funeral at Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills in November. Wells was buried in a prayer shawl and a pink yarmulke, and his friends placed a Dolly Parton blanket in the grave.

Sandra Kaplan, Wells’ mother, who lives in West Hills, saved some of Wells’ Dolly Parton memorabilia, along with his telescope, his photo albums and a daily gratitude journal Wells had been keeping since he was a child. She found on his dresser a small chai necklace he got when he was 8 years old.

Kaplan still can’t believe she refers to her only child in the past tense.

She keeps her home filled with images of her son. Directly over her television, a photo of him looks down on her, his smile dominating the frame. A magazine article from 2011 hangs on a nearby wall, featuring Wells in the “Sexiest Gay Vegas” awards, his muscles bulging from his T-shirt.

A large painted portrait of him as a 3-year-old, with blond curls and an angelic smile, dominates a sunlit wall with a view of the Valley.

Wells was a challenging child and teen, according to his mother. His father left when Wells was an infant, and Kaplan’s second husband, Stuart Wells, adopted Phillip but also became estranged after they divorced. Kaplan raised Phillip alone for most of his elementary- and middle-school years, and she struggled to get him to go to school, though he was clearly very bright. He didn’t have a bar mitzvah, she said, because getting him to Hebrew school would have been impossible.

When Sandra married Larry Kaplan in 1990, Phil and Larry developed a strong relationship. Wells told Larry he was gay when he was 14, before he came out to his mother. Sandra said she and Larry were always unconditionally supportive of Phil.

“I wasn’t surprised when he came out. I was happy he told us so he could be open about it,” she said.

Still, Wells had a tough time in high school, and after he graduated, he moved to West Hollywood, going through a series of jobs and eventually learning to be a graphic artist. But he found that being a bartender allowed him to become immersed in the gay community, and he was good at it because he loved people so much.

“He always shook hands [with] a customer if he had not served them before, and typically went around to the perimeter and exterior to build a rapport with them,” Guy Sheets, owner of The Garage, told Las Vegas Night Beat, a monthly publication. “If I were a patron, that would make me feel so at home and at ease.”

Wells met Tracy Kauffman at the XYZ bar in Knoxville, where Kauffman was part owner. Kauffman hired Wells as a bartender, and the two start dating. Kauffman was 14 years older, and the two had a fraught relationship from the start, according to Kaplan.

A December 2009 letter to Wells from the Knoxville Police Department indicates that Wells may have been a victim of domestic violence. They had complex financial and employment arrangements. The two never lived together, but Kaplan says that Wells tried to get out of the relationship several times and Kauffman kept him entangled.

Hoffman said he and Wells had to hide their own relationship out of fear of Kauffman.

Wells left Tennessee in 2010 to make a fresh start in Las Vegas, where he and his three dogs moved in to his uncle’s house.

Kauffman allegedly flew from Knoxville to Las Vegas a week before the shooting. According to a police report, when Kauffman began shooting, Wells ran from the bar to a back storage room. He was shot four times in the front of his body, and around 15 times in the back and back of his head.

The group Impositive.org, which helps people who are HIV positive, spearheaded a successful fundraising drive to pay for Wells’ funeral expenses.

Kaplan said she is attending support groups and private therapy paid for by a victims of crime group, but each day is difficult for her. She hopes to raise enough funds to dedicate a bench and tree in Wells’ memory at a park in Knoxville by his next birthday.

“I’m still crying all the time. I’m doing the best I can, but he was my only son,” she said.

Wells’ friends lament the light that was lost.

“I didn’t think there was anyone who could ever bring themselves to hurt Phil, because everyone loved him,” Hoffman said. “He was a pillar of our community. I know that sounds cheesy, but he was. He was a constant — you knew that wherever he was, that was a good place to be.”

Solving a grim Jewish quandary after the attacks: Avoiding agunah problems for 9/11 widows

When unthinkable disaster struck a decade ago and close to 3,000 people were murdered at the World Trade Center, the scale of destruction created a unique challenge for victims’ families: identification of the dead.

With only fragmented human remains and degraded DNA left in the wake of 9/11, that task became, in the words of the National Institute of Justice, “the greatest forensic challenge ever undertaken in this country.”

For the families of Jewish victims, this problem was particularly thorny. According to Jewish law, a woman cannot remarry unless she has definitive proof of her husband’s death, lest she inadvertently enter into an adulterous relationship. Jewish law dictates that death can be proven in three ways: physical evidence, eyewitness testimony of the death and certain confirmation that the person had been in a situation in which survival was essentially impossible.

Absent such proof, this would leave Jewish wives of those killed at the World Trade Center in the position of classic agunot – “chained” women, left in a legal marriage with one who most likely was dead.

For decades, such cases had been few and far between.  In centuries past, however, this Jewish law was a reference point for the wives of sailors who had disappeared, soldiers who had failed to return home from battle and traveling merchants who had vanished along the way.

The consequences of being unable to identify the dead do not represent a uniquely Jewish problem.  Declaring individuals dead simply because they are likely to be dead can cause terrible complications.  For example, during World War II, President Jimmy Carter’s uncle, Tom Gordy, was declared dead by U.S. officials after being taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese, and his wife remarried during the war. But when the war ended, Gordy returned home as a liberated POW to discover, tragically, that his wife was married to another. Under Jewish law, Gordy would most likely not have been declared dead, and his wife would not have remarried.  The disappearance of a person and the passage of time alone are not generally deemed enough, under Jewish law, to declare the person dead.

However, the circumstances of someone’s disappearance, in some situations, can support a presumption of death. Two illustrations commonly discussed in Jewish literature are the man who falls into a deep furnace and the man who drowns in a body of water that has visible boundaries, such as a lake or a pond. Of the first scenario, Jewish sages wrote that a man who is seen falling into a deep furnace may be presumed dead because he had no means of escape and is sure to have perished. Of the second, they wrote that a man who is seen drowning in a body of water with visible boundaries may be presumed to be dead because he surely would have been seen or found on shore had he survived.

It was this line of reasoning that allowed the Beth Din of America, a rabbinical court involved in many aspects of commercial and family law in the United States, to pronounce many 9/11 victims dead in the absence of conclusive physical evidence.

When the Office of Chief Medical Examiner in New York concluded its investigation, more than 1,100 victims of 9/11 remained unidentified. Even with respect to the nearly 1,600 victims who were identified, the identifications could not automatically be presumed to meet the standards set by Jewish law.

In its quest to confirm the fate of the victims, the Beth Din had to determine whether and which modern methods of identification would comply with Jewish evidentiary standards. What would satisfy the physical evidence requirement—DNA evidence? What about dental records?  What about the recognition of clothes or limbs?  The Beth Din also posed an additional question: In the event a determination required reliance upon eyewitness testimony, what person could provide such testimony?

In searching for answers, we studied the literature of prior tragedies, finding Jewish legal discussions of husbands who disappeared in the sinking of the Titanic, in the collapse of bridges in Rome, in avalanches in the Alps, in artillery bombardments in World War I, and in the sinking of the Israeli submarine Dakar. We also looked at the cases of Israeli soldiers who had disappeared during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and, of course, at agunah cases related to the Holocaust.

After 9/11, in some cases, the only evidence for placing someone in the World Trade Center at the time of the attack was circumstantial—phone calls made or emails sent from within an office, swipe cards indicating entry but no exit, and so on.  In certain cases, investigators identified remains through the modern technology of DNA analysis.

After a rigorous analysis of Jewish legal precedents, the Beth Din determined that DNA evidence could be marshaled for identification purposes, certainly when coupled with other circumstantial evidence of an individual’s death. In the few cases where investigators had found no direct physical evidence, the Beth Din relied on the third standard of proof: placing a husband, with certainty, in a situation in which no one could realistically be expected to survive.

More than 90 percent of the casualties of 9/11 were located at or above the point where the planes hit the towers, particularly in the North Tower. With no escape and facing almost certain death, those people were akin to the man who falls into a furnace.  Often, phone calls or emails were enough to place the missing person in his office at a certain time, after which escape would have been impossible. Together with other evidence, the Beth Din could rely on time stamps and statistics in order to pronounce the missing person dead.

For such a pronouncement to be made, it was not automatically sufficient to know that a person worked at the World Trade Center or attended a meeting there if no additional evidence proved he was there on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Why withhold judgment under circumstances in which an individual’s disappearance so clearly indicates death?  One unfortunate reason is because some people use tragedy as an opportunity for fraud and manipulation, or perhaps as a way to make a fresh start. The chaos of 9/11 opened the floodgates to a number of fraudulent insurance claims and other crimes.  Another sad reality is that sometimes, in the throes of despair, mistakes are made.  In the decades after the Holocaust, people long thought to be dead were discovered to be alive and well and raising new families in other parts of the world, in cases similar to the story of President Carter’s uncle.

With time, the Beth Din of America found sufficient evidence to make a declaration of death in each of the cases before it. In making those determinations, the Beth Din released each agunah according to the principles of Jewish law and enabled the victims’ loved ones to mourn for those lost and to begin to rebuild their shattered lives.  Ultimately, the halachic process provided a time-honored framework for honoring the dignity of those who had died, while creating a sense of direction for the spouses who had loved them.

(Michael J. Broyde is a professor of law at Emory University. Yona Reiss is the dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University. Both are members of the Beth Din of America. This piece was adapted from their contributions to “Contending with Catastrophe: Jewish Perspectives on September 11th,” released in August by the Beth Din of America Press and K’hal Publishing.)