BOSTON – United States Senator John Kerry, President Obama’s nominee for secretary of state, cuts a sober figure in Washington’s corridors of power, but among Jewish friends and former colleagues in his home state of Massachusetts, where he has been a fixture of public life for decades, he is also known for sharp wit and accessibility.
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“He’s extremely serious at one level. He is not somebody who is a backslapper,” said Jeff Robbins, a prominent Boston lawyer, who came to know Kerry when he was cast as his opponent in a series of mock debates for Kerry's Senate campaign in 1996. “He has a mischievous sense of humor, a strong sense of irony.”
Robbins, currently chairman of the Anti-Defamation League Board in New England remembers being impressed then by how devoted and committed Kerry’s supporters and staff were.
Today, Robbins is a lawyer at the prominent Boston law firm Mintz Levin, where Kerry’s brother Cameron Kerry used to also work. Cameron Kerry was raised Catholic, like his older brother, but converted to Judaism. When John Kerry ran for president in 2004 the family found out their paternal grandfather was born a Jew in what is now the Czech Republic.
Kerry is from the Boston area, and is known for having a long-standing and strong relationship with the city’s large Jewish community. The Epsteins have known Kerry since he began his political career in the 1970s.
“He’s very smart, very thoughtful and thinks things through very well,” said Bob Epstein, a real estate developer and a managing partner of the Boston Celtics National Basketball Association team.
In 1986, a year after he became a U.S. senator, Bob Epstein and his wife Esta Epstein, were part of a tour group that visited Israel on a trip organized by the ADL.
Bob Epstein was impressed by Kerry’s understanding of Middle Eastern geography on the trip. Esta Espstein recalls their group having fun floating in the Dead Sea together and climbing Masada, where they sang "Am Yisrael Chai," "The People of Israel Live."
Esta Epstein described Kerry as “earnest, thorough” and “someone who does not make quick, off-hand decisions.”
Esta Epstein, who, like her husband, is on the national advisory board of ADL, said Kerry has been forthcoming and available to the local Jewish community when they have come to him with concerns or issues.
Kerry lives in Newton, a Boston suburb with a large Jewish population, and local Jewish friends and neighbors, including the Epsteins, have long been among his supporters.
Jim Segel first met Kerry in the late 1970s when he was also involved in politics as a Massachusetts state legislator. He came to know him better when Kerry became Lieutenant Governor in 1982.
“He was likeable, very disciplined, very directed and ambitious and he worked very hard politically,” said Segel, who later served as general counsel for the long-time Boston-area Congressman Barney Frank, where he continued to work with Kerry.
“He has grown in gravitas. He does his homework. He is serious … and in meetings he was well-prepared and asks good questions,” said Segel who said he dealt with Kerry on a number of issues, including Iran sanctions. Kerry is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Segel said Kerry is someone who will know when to be a team player and when to be an independent voice if his nomination for secretary of state is approved, as expected.
Noting his return from Vietnam as a veteran who spoke out against the war, Segel said, “He has the courage of his convictions and I don’t think he feels a need to have power but instead wants to make a difference, wants to make things better.”
“I think he’s always been favorable to Israel and he understands the history and that it’s a tough neighborhood, added Segel, who is also president of the Conservative Temple Israel, Boston’s largest synagogue.