April 26, 2024

Memorializing a Dedicated Public Servant

Linda Scherzer JCRC Director

Congressman Donald Payne, Jr., who died Wednesday from complications of a heart attack, is being remembered by colleagues and friends as a dedicated public servant who fought tirelessly for the rights and welfare of working families in New Jersey. Whether standing for access to healthcare and safe drinking water, voting rights, social justice, or reproductive freedom, Payne was a champion for democratic values and for the people of Newark and the 10th congressional district. 

For the Jewish community, whose members often lobbied the congressman on issues related to Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship, he is remembered as a public official who cared about Israel’s security and survival, while also being a champion for the welfare and rights of the Palestinian people.  

On many of the most important foreign aid bills, Rep. Payne’s record was supportive, consistently voting in favor of legislation that secured Israel’s defensive needs like the Iron Dome missile defense system. He was a strong supporter of Israel’s right to exist and defend itself, voted for sanctions against Iran, and signed a resolution after October 7 condemning the barbaric massacre carried out by Hamas and reaffirming the United States’ commitment to Israel’s security. At the same time, he never backed down from advocating for Palestinian rights, and – during the Israel/Hamas war – calling for urgent humanitarian aid. 

I remember Congressman Payne as a kind and decent man with a big heart who often talked about his childhood in Newark and the friendships he forged with Jewish peers after school at the YM-YWHA on Chancellor Avenue. 

More than once, when I would bring a group of Jewish leaders or students to his office, the congressman would relate the story of running home from the Y on a June day in 1967, at the end of the Six-Day War. “Mom,” he cried with excitement, “we won, we won!” 

The Newark riots followed one year later, hastening the exodus of Jews from Newark to the surrounding suburbs. Congressman Payne would say, ruefully, that the Jewish people fled and never looked back. We often brought to his attention the initiatives of our Jewish Federation to engage in service projects like Big Brothers Big Sisters, help support initiatives like the Newark Conservancy, participate in MLK Day activities, bring Newark students to the Holocaust Museum and Lincoln Memorial in Washington, and honor Newark’s rich Jewish history. The Congressman would take it all in and encourage us to do more. 

For his principled commitment to public service, his dedication to improving the lives of all New Jerseyans, and the generous way he engaged with our community – from Jewish leaders to high school students – we owe Representative Payne our gratitude. Our sincere condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues. May his memory be a blessing.