One of the most visible and outspoken Jewish politicians in United States history passed away, taking with him a quixotic voting record that defied labels. But on the issues of religious freedom and Israel’s right to self-defense, say leaders of American Jewish organizations, former Sen. Arlen Specter – who lost a long battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma Sunday at the age of 82 – left little doubt as to his positions.

As a staff attorney on the Warren Commission, he supported the so-called Super Bullet Theory that ruled out a conspiracy in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As a Republican senator in 1987, he joined with liberals in voting against President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court, but in 1991, backed conservatives and defended President George Bush’s nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas. And by then as Pennsylvania’s longest-serving senator in Washington, the Kansas-born Specter lost his seat in 2010 after famously switching his party affiliation to the Democrats.

But whether as Philadelphia District Attorney or as a leader on Capitol Hill, Specter was one of the more vocal supporters of Israel, the effort to free Jewish citizens trapped behind the Iron Curtain, and the work of Chabad-Lubavitch.

“He was an early friend, a strong supporter, and over the years, we became personally close,” said Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, the Philadelphia-based director of American Friends of Lubavitch who worked with Specter when they were both delegates to the 1971 White House Conference on Youth in Estes Park, Colo.

Whether it was in backing the continued presence of a Chanukah menorah in front of Independence Hall or advocating for the right of Jewish prisoners to receive their religious needs through such organizations as the Aleph Institute, Specter was seen by many in the Jewish community as a trusted supporter in Washington. In 1985, he hosted the Education Day, USA celebration in the Senate Caucus Room in honor of the 83rd birthday of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and in 2008, received the American Friends of Lubavitch’s annual Leadership Award at its gala dinner.

Arlen Specter was Pennsylvania’s longest serving senator in Washington, D.C.
Arlen Specter was Pennsylvania’s longest serving senator in Washington, D.C.

Three years earlier, he earned headlines for inserting a $25 million allotment for synagogue security in the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act.

“At a time of deep polarization in our country’s politics, Sen. Specter’s reliably strong stand for justice and fairness, and his vigorous defense of moderation, are sorely missed,” said American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris. “He was a respected voice in foreign affairs – as a staunch supporter of the U.S.-Israel alliance, as a leader in efforts to facilitate the emigration of Soviet Jews and other individuals suffering religious persecution, and as a watchdog on international terrorism who raised alarms over Iran’s military ambitions.”

To Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Washington director of the American Friends of Lubavitch, he was also known as a cohen, a member of Judaism’s priestly caste.

“Over the years, he was known as a staunch supporter of Israel,” he said, “never backing down from defending it even in the face of strong opposition.”