How Sen. Jon Ossoff Paid Tribute To His Jewish Ancestors As He Was Sworn In

The Georgia Democrat's great-grandparents arrived at Ellis Island in the early 1900s. Now their descendant has made it to Capitol Hill.

As Democrat Jon Ossoff was sworn in as Georgia’s first Jewish senator on Wednesday, he tucked a reminder of his family’s immigrant roots into his jacket pocket.

While taking the oath of office in the Senate chamber, Ossoff carried copies of the ships’ manifests recording the arrival of his great-grandparents at New York’s Ellis Island in the early 1900s, the 33-year-old revealed on Twitter.

Over a century after these immigrants arrived in New York City, their descendant has a seat in Congress. 

Ossoff, whose father is of Russian and Lithuanian descent, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz last year that he had family members who were Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants who fled pogroms in the early 20th century. He told The New Yorker in 2017 that his family’s name was likely truncated at Ellis Island “from something like Ossoffsky.”

Anti-Jewish violence swept through parts of the Russian Empire in the late 19th century and continued after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Perpetrators wreaked havoc on Jewish communities, looting victims’ homes and businesses, and raping women, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Particularly violent pogroms occurred between 1903 and 1906, prompting tens of thousands of Jews in the region to flee.

It was in response to these pogroms that Jewish Americans began to organize advocacy groups, such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and the  American Jewish Committee, that fought for the rights of these Jewish refugees.

Ossoff told Moment Magazine that Jews share a story of “hardship, persecution, [and] perseverance.”

“Most Jews, no matter where they live in the world, share an immigrant story. We have been a people on the move,” he said. “That heritage informs my commitment to a vision of America that is open and decent, kind and respectful. That lives up to our national character as a place that welcomes strivers from afar and those fleeing violence and persecution.”

(Left to right) Democrats Raphael Warnock, Alex Padilla and Jon Ossoff take the oath of office administered by Vice President
(Left to right) Democrats Raphael Warnock, Alex Padilla and Jon Ossoff take the oath of office administered by Vice President Kamala Harris in the Senate chamber on Wednesday. The three new senators and Harris' role as the Senate's presiding officer established Democrats as the chamber's majority.

Ossoff chose to take his oath of office on a Hebrew Bible that belonged to Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, the former leader of the Reform Jewish synagogue in Atlanta that the new senator attended as a child. Rothschild was a vocal opponent of segregation and a friend to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The rabbi’s activism led to the bombing of his synagogue in 1958 by white supremacists, which only served to intensify Rothschild’s commitment to the civil rights movement.

The alliance between Atlanta’s Jewish and Black Protestant leaders remains strong today ― the current leader of Ossoff’s synagogue, Rabbi Peter Berg, is a close friend and supporter of Georgia’s other new Democratic senator, Rev. Raphael Warnock, a pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, King’s former spiritual home. 

Both Warnock, Georgia’s first Black senator, and Ossoff leaned on the ties between Georgia’s Jewish and Black communities to mobilize support that powered their wins in Jan. 5 runoff elections.

Ossoff told Moment Magazine that he considers his Jewish heritage a “defining” part of his identity. 

“I think that the values that were infused in my upbringing by my parents and grandparents and my synagogue—commitment to peace and justice and kindness—still inform how I approach my life every day,” he said.