Judge Monet Gaines swears in Phillip Ensler as a member of the Alabama Legislature on Nov. 9 outside Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church
For the first time in almost 50 years, Alabama will have a Jewish state legislator, with the Nov. 8 election of Phillip Ensler to the Alabama House in District 74. He is also the first Democrat since 2010 to flip what had been a Republican seat.
Ensler, who is executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama, defeated incumbent Republican Charlotte Meadows, 60 percent to 40 percent. It is believed that Ensler is the eighth Jewish member of the legislature in Alabama history.
It is the latest chapter in an unexpected saga for Ensler. If someone had told him 10 years ago that he would be living in Alabama and newly-elected to the legislature, “I would have laughed and said you’re out of your mind.”
Raised in New York City, Ensler first came to Montgomery in 2012 after attending George Washington University, to work for Teach for America, a national program that places teachers in under-resourced schools. He taught high school social studies at Robert E. Lee High School, and while he was originally shocked at the idea of teaching at a school named for a Confederate general, he quickly realized that he was meant to be there.
During his time with Teach for America, he became involved with the local Jewish community, and after he finished at New York’s Cardozo Law School, he knew he wanted to return.
In 2017, he worked for Alabama Appleseed, and then became policy advisor to Mayor Steven Reed in 2020. In the Jewish community, he became president of the Federation.
When Executive Director Tzlil McDonald left for New Orleans, as he helped write the job description he quipped that he would apply for the position. The quip was taken seriously, and the Federation selected him.
His first taste of politics came as an intern for a political campaign while he was still in high school. He enrolled in George Washington University, and after a couple of unsuccessful attempts, finally secured an internship in the Obama White House.
Being a legislator is regarded as a part-time job. Ensler consulted with Federation leadership before he ran, and “they trust I can manage both roles and keep them separate,” he said, adding that he is grateful that he has the opportunity to do both,
Last year, the eastern Montgomery district was redrawn to make it more Democratic. What had been a white Republican district was now 55 percent black, and contained numerous Jewish families. Ensler felt there was now a chance to use his “passion for public service” and put together a “really strong coalition” of grassroots support that could propel a Democrat to victory.
“In Alabama, there are a lot of great things happening, but also a lot of things pulling the state backwards, or not letting the state move forward,” he said.
Education will be a major emphasis in his work, as he ran for Montgomery school board four years ago. He also will advocate for public health, social justice, public health and economic development.
He also wants to emphasize constituent services and not be a politician that shows up every four years when it is time to look for votes.
He also is acutely aware that as the only Jewish legislator, he will need to do a lot of educating in the State House, providing a different perspective in the very-Republican legislature in the heart of the Bible Belt.
On Nov. 9, new legislators were sworn in, and Ensler decided to have Montgomery County District Judge Monet Gaines officiate, standing in front of Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, just down the hill from the State Capitol.
He explained that in college, he spent a few days touring the civil rights sites, and he was particularly moved by the church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached. “It continued to be a place of influence for me and my journey,” he said.
His mother held his personal Tanach for him to use as he was sworn in. His father and twin sister also attended, as did Montgomery’s Agudath Israel-Etz Ahayem Rabbi Scott Kramer, who held a Torah during the ceremony. Ensler said that was symbolic of “my Jewish values and my worldview that guides my public service.”
They also recited “Shehecheyanu,” the prayer of thanksgiving.
“I am honored to be given the opportunity to keep fighting… for a more inclusive, prosperous, safe and equitable city and state for all,” he said.
Jewish Alabamians in the Legislature
While there hasn’t been a Jewish representative in the Alabama House since 1974, there have been several throughout history, including one term with four Jewish representatives.
Philip Phillips was the first Jewish representative in Alabama. A South Carolina native, he was elected to the South Carolina legislature in 1834, then resigned when he moved to Mobile to open a law office in 1835. He became president of the Alabama Democratic Convention and served in the Alabama House from 1843 to 1844, and 1851 to 1852.
In 1853, Phillips was elected to Congress, and decided not to run for re-election. While he was a Unionist, his wife was a strong secessionist, and the family was placed under house arrest when the Civil War broke out.
They eventually moved to New Orleans in late 1862, where Benjamin Butler had Mrs. Phillips arrested for insulting a dead Union soldier during his funeral procession. She served three months in prison.
After the war, they returned to Washington. Phillips died in 1884 and is buried in Savannah.
Isadore Shapiro, who was admitted to the Alabama Bar at age 18, was elected to the Alabama House from Birmingham in 1914 and served for several years.
In 1915, he published a pamphlet, “A New Constitution: Alabama’s Most Imperative Need,” a debate that continues to rage today. The state’s 1901 constitution, written specifically to disenfranchise minorities and centralize power in Montgomery, is by far the longest constitution in the world, and among the 10 amendments to it on this year’s ballot was an initiative to remove racist language and redundancies, and condense the hundreds of amendments.
Shapiro also wrote legislation against loan sharks.
In 1966, four Alabama Jews were elected to the House — Bennett Cherner of Bessemer, Bert Bank of Tuscaloosa, David Fine of Sulligent and Mayer Perloff of Mobile. The news even made the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s national wire.
Cherner was reelected in 1970.
In 1972, there was a task force to come up with a redistricting plan for the state, called the Cherner Plan. However, Cherner died while in office, at age 35, and it was agreed that the plan had little chance of passing, so it was shelved.
Bank, a highly decorated World War II hero who survived the Bataan Death March, served two terms, and then was elected to the Alabama Senate in 1974. He ran unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor in 1978. He introduced legislation to make it a felony to burn an American flag or draft card, making Alabama the first state to outlaw those actions.
A radio pioneer, Bank established the Alabama Football Radio Network. He died in 2009.
Fine was described in the JTA piece as a World War I veteran, but he was born in 1905, making him 13 during the war. Part of the only Jewish family in Sulligent, he served one term.
Perloff was a native of New Orleans who started practicing law in Mobile in 1956. He parachuted into France on D-Day and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He served two terms in the House.
The members who were re-elected in 1970 were joined by Birmingham’s Ben Erdreich, who served in the House from 1971 to 1974. He then was elected to the Jefferson County Commission, and in 1982 was elected to Congress.
While Alabama has not had a Jewish governor, there has been a Jewish First Lady — Lori Allen Siegelman, wife of Governor Don Siegelman, who served from 1999 to 2003.