a black and white photo of Dianne Feinstein lighting a menorah
This undated photo of Dianne Feinstein lighting a menorah is one of many images of her accumulated in the J. archives over her long career in the public eye.

With retirement on the horizon, a look at Dianne Feinstein’s Jewish legacy

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who announced last month that she will not run for re-election in 2024, is wrapping up more than five decades as a politician who openly ran as a Jew, spoke out against antisemitism and advocated for policies that support Israel. Throughout her life in the public eye, however, she rarely shared details of her Jewish story.

Feinstein, who turns 90 in June, will retire at the end of her term. She is the oldest sitting U.S. senator and California’s longest-serving senator. Elected in 1992, she and Barbara Boxer also made history as the first Jewish women elected to the Senate.

Dianne Feinstein in 1977 (File photo)
Dianne Feinstein in 1977 (File photo)

Born Dianne Goldman in 1933 in San Francisco, Feinstein attended a Catholic girls school, “in accordance with her mother’s wishes,” according to the Jewish Women’s Archive. She was the first Jewish student to graduate from Convent of the Sacred Heart, a prestigious Catholic high school in San Francisco, according to the archive. She attended Sunday school at Reform Congregation Emanu-El and later was confirmed.

Feinstein declined an interview request, but Boxer spoke warmly about her longtime colleague’s Jewish identity.

“She chose to be Jewish,” Boxer, who served alongside Feinstein in the Senate from 1993 to 2017, said in an interview from her Palm Springs home.

“That, to me, is extremely admirable. To go in that direction when you know … you’re going to face some prejudice for it. I find it to be very admirable,” said Boxer, who is 82.

Indeed, Feinstein has spoken about the antisemitism she faced early in her political career.

“Originally, when I first went into public office I received hate mail based on my religion, but since that time, and during my term as mayor, there’s been very little,” Feinstein said in 1990 while campaigning for governor of California, according to an article in the Jewish Bulletin (forerunner to J.).

“I’ve had graffiti on my home, Stars of David and religious and sexist slurs painted on the walkway, and I just go out and take them off,” Feinstein added, speaking at an Oakland event of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay Women’s Division.

I’ve had graffiti on my home, Stars of David and religious and sexist slurs painted on the walkway, and I just go out and take them off.

According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, Feinstein’s father, Leon Goldman, became chief of surgery at UCSF and the first Jew to attain the rank of full professor at the medical school. Her paternal grandfather, Sam Goldman, who emigrated from Poland, helped found three synagogues in California, including Berkeley’s Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel. Her mother, Betty Goldman, whose maiden name was Rosenburg, “had a more distant relationship with Judaism,” according to the Jewish Women’s Archive, which notes that members of Betty’s family attended a Russian Orthodox church.

Retired Superior Court Judge and longtime politician Quentin Kopp, who is 94, recalls meeting Feinstein in 1956, when she was just 22. At the time, Kopp had recently relocated from New York to San Francisco after finishing his tour in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.

“We were both single, and somebody told me about this Jewish girl who graduated Stanford and lived at Presidio Terrace,” Kopp, who currently serves on J.’s board, said in an interview. Kopp called her and they made plans to meet for a first date. However, when he met her at her childhood home, Feinstein backed out on their dinner plans, saying her mother was sick in bed. The two never arranged another date, though much later, starting in the early 1970s, they served together on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Months after the thwarted date, Feinstein eloped with Jack Berman, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive. Berman was a Jewish lawyer who later became a Superior Court judge. They had a daughter, Katherine, Feinstein’s only child, and divorced a few years later.

Feinstein married Canadian surgeon Bertram Feinstein in 1962. He was the director of Mount Zion Hospital’s neurological institute from 1971 to 1974 and co-director of the pain center from 1974 until his death in 1978.

In 1980, Feinstein married her third husband, Richard Blum, a successful investment banker and financial manager who died last year. They joined Reform synagogue Sherith Israel in 1992, according to synagogue records. It’s unclear from those records when their membership ended, said executive director Gordon Gladstone.

Israeli Consul General Yaacov Sella (left) and Mayor Dianne Feinstein hang an Israeli flag from City Hall in 1986 to mark 38 years of Israeli independence. (Photo/Tom Wachs)
Israeli Consul General Yaacov Sella (left) and Mayor Dianne Feinstein hang an Israeli flag from City Hall in 1986 to mark 38 years of Israeli independence. (Photo/Tom Wachs)

Feinstein became mayor of San Francisco in 1978 following the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. She was the city’s first Jewish mayor since Adolph Heinrich Joseph Sutro, who served from 1895 to 1897.

While mayor, Feinstein rejected a proposal to make San Francisco a sister city with Leningrad because, she said, the Soviet Union prevented Jewish emigration and had “repressive Soviet policies toward Jews,” according to a 1984 Jewish Bulletin article.

In 1984, still mayor, she visited Europe’s oldest Jewish ghetto in Venice, Italy, during a trip with Hadassah.

“There you understand the need to speak up loudly and clearly against anti-Semitism, wherever it be. If we don’t, there will be more ghettos, there will be another Holocaust,” Feinstein, a Hadassah life member, said in a public address during her visit, according to a Jewish Bulletin article.

Feinstein, the article noted, had also been working with a committee on the Board of Supervisors to create a Holocaust monument in San Francisco that would help educate the public. The monument, created by sculptor George Segal, was installed and dedicated outside San Francisco’s Legion of Honor in 1984.

In a 1990 Jewish Bulletin article about her run for governor, Feinstein said if she were elected it “would be a very clear signal that people accept and are willing to vote for someone who is Jewish, and who is a woman. And I think if I win that acceptance, it bodes well for every minority.”

Feinstein lost the governor’s race to Pete Wilson. Two years later, she and Boxer made history when they were elected to the Senate.

Dianne Feinstein (left) and Barbara Boxer raise their arms in victory at a press conference, June 3, 1992. (File photo)
Dianne Feinstein (left) and Barbara Boxer raise their arms in victory at a press conference, June 3, 1992. (File photo)

Boxer today describes her own run as a longshot, coming from a small congressional district that represented Marin and Sonoma counties, compared with Feinstein, who was “very highly respected” and a well-known name in California politics. The fact that they were both Jewish, women and Democrats from the same area, Boxer said, could have pitted them against each other in the primaries. Instead, they campaigned together.

“She took my hand, literally, and we went around the state together. I think that just showed tremendous sisterhood,” Boxer said. “They called us Thelma and Louise.”

Once in office, she said they established a policy of “do no harm” to each other, despite holding different political philosophies. Boxer was more progressive, and Feinstein was “mainstream, moderate,” Boxer said. “But when it came to California, we were joined at the hip.”

One of the first issues they took up together after they were elected was calling on the federal government to stop selling military-grade weapons to Middle Eastern Arab countries, in an effort to protect Israel.

Feinstein visited Israel several times, first touring during her time as mayor in 1986.

“No Jew can come here without feeling a deep sense of pride in all that has been accomplished,” she said during that first visit. “Israel means that Jews will never again be sent to gas chambers. If my family had not left Eastern Europe when they did, I might well have been one of the victims instead of standing here.”

Dianne Feinstein shares a moment with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir during a 1991 mission to Israel. (Photo/Robert A. Cumins)
Dianne Feinstein shares a moment with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir during a 1991 mission to Israel. (Photo/Robert A. Cumins)

Feinstein had been a staunch gun control advocate since the assassinations of Moscone and Milk in 1978. She is often credited as the architect of the 1994 federal ban on assault weapons. She was chief sponsor of a bill — originally authored in 1989 by Ohio Democratic Sen. Howard Metzenbaum — that she ushered through Congress in her second year in the Senate.

In 1997, after the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms granted the Israeli government permission to export modified version of the Uzi and Galil military-style assault weapons to the United States, Feinstein publicly denounced the Israeli government’s role in arming Americans with assault weapons and wrote a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try to stop the transfer of arms.

Amid serious national and international issues, Feinstein and Boxer had moments of levity, too.

Boxer recalls both of them bringing what she called their “Jewish humor” to their campaign speeches, particularly when it came to the question of whether the Senate really would benefit from two Jewish women in office.

Boxer would say, “If ever we needed a dose of chicken soup in the Senate, it’s now.” Feinstein famously quipped that “2% might be good for the fat content in milk, but it’s not good enough for women’s representation in the United States Senate.”

Today, there are 25 women in the Senate.

Feinstein’s retirement was announced in mid-February. Already several public officials are vying for her seat.

“Each of us was sent here to solve problems. That’s what I’ve done for the last 30 years,” Feinstein said in the announcement. “And that’s what I plan to do for the next two years.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.