This article appeared in the June 27, 2014 Jewish Advocate.

Driven by his family’s past, a state rep looks to the future

By Susie Davidson

Special to the Advocate

My parents’ life stories affected my life very much.”Frank I. Smizik

Brookline’s Frank Israel Smizik does double duty as a state representative and as president of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action ( JALSA).

While he been a member of JALSA’s Advisory Committee for many years, he took on the top job at the organization last year. And for 14 years, Smizik has been representing Brookline at the State House, where he has sponsored numerous petitions and legislative measures.

Before he joined the Legislature, Smizik had long been active in his hometown. From 1992- 2000, he served as a member of the Brookline School Committee and as its vice chair. For a decade earlier, he worked with the Brookline Housing Authority where he eventually became commissioner and chairman. Smizik has also worked on the town’s Democratic Town Committee and has been a town meeting member.

For two and a half decades, Smizik served as a legal services lawyer at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute where he assisted low-income clients with housing and civil issues. During his tenure, Smizik forged litigation that established rights for residents who were displaced from their homes by urban renewal projects; he also worked on litigation strategies to avoid homelessness.

At JALSA, he has worked on campaigns to raise the minimum wage, support gun control and increase earned sick time. “I was pleased to be able to shepherd JALSA until Frank took it over,” said Smizik’s predecessor Andrew M. Fischer, a Boston attorney. “He has been a champion of the Jewish values of justice and civil rights and of tikkun olam, or caring for the earth.”

This concern for social justice for the disadvantaged was inspired by Smizik’s own family history. “My concern for the poor and equal rights resulted from my mother’s experience in coming to the U.S.,” he told The Jewish Advocate in an e-mail. “I heard the story many times how my mother’s family escaped from the Ukraine during the early 1900s, when pogroms were prevalent,” he wrote. “My grandfather and grandmother and their five children were able to escape to Poland. There, they lived in a Catholic church for a year because a Catholic priest was protecting them.”

Each day, Smizik recollected, the children needed to remain disguised to protect their safety. “ They went outside wearing outfits that made them look like Catholic children,” he explained. “If people found out they were Jewish, they would have had trouble in Poland.”

After a year, they were able to leave for the United States, but here, they had to separate. “Some of the family went to Pittsburgh and New York, and a smaller contingent went to Toronto, Canada,” he said. “ This story was a revelation to me as a youngster and helped me understand the problems of Jewish people around the world.”

Smizik’s father also experienced prejudice, when he went looking for a job. “He was young and applied to an electricians’ union so he could work on electrical jobs,” Smizik recounted. “In the 1930s, their answer to my father was that no Jews were allowed in the union.”

Smizik was moved by that rejection of his father to protect others from discrimination. “I felt I had a responsibility to fight anti-Semitism and to support civil rights,” Smizik said. While living in Pittsburgh, Smizik worked for eight years at a neighborhood legal services organization. Then, in 1978, he moved to Massachusettsand was offered a job with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

Born in 1944, Smizik attended Peabody High School inPittsburgh and received a bachelor degree from theUniversity of Pittsburgh in 1966 and a law degree from Duquesne University in 1971.

He has been married to Julie Johnson since 1981 and they have two children, Emma and Hallie. The family has belonged to Temple Sinai in Coolidge Corner for 25 years.

It’s been especially helpful to have Frank Smizik at the helm,” JALSA Executive Director Sheila Decter said of Smizik’s leadership at JALSA. “In addition to his long record on economic and social justice, his expertise on climate change is essential for any group wanting to work on today’s most significant problems,” she said.

Currently, Smizik is focused on the development of renewable energy on a smaller scale, through the usage of net metering, and he is also exploring the facilitation of larger, local renewable energy sources, in New England. Improving public education and affordable housing are other issues that have his attention.

But for Smizik, the activism and concern for the welfare of others started long ago. “My parents’ life stories affected my life very much,” he said.