April 9: Abraham Ribicoff Born in New Britain

 

On April 9, 1910, Abraham Alexander Ribicoff was born in a New Britain tenement house to Ashkenazi Jewish parents who had immigrated to Connecticut from Poland.  Over the course of his lifetime, he would spend nearly fifty years in public service in local, state, and federal government and become one of Connecticut’s most notable politicians.

After earning a law degree from the University of Chicago, Ribicoff and returned to his home state, where he soon set up his own legal practice in Kensington and began his meteoric rise through the ranks of Connecticut politics. Beginning in 1938, Ribicoff served for two terms in the Connecticut General Assembly; by the early 1950s, he had also served as a Hartford judge and was twice elected as a US Representative from Connecticut’s first district.

Governor Ribicoff with a handful of telegrams related to Connecticut’s devastating floods of 1955.

In 1955, Ribicoff ran for governor as a Democrat and won in spite of entrenched anti-Semitism in a political arena overwhelmingly dominated by Protestant Christians.  During his campaign, he repeatedly emphasized his own modest upbringing and championed the promise of “the American dream” to immigrants and their families.  During his first term, he supported increasing state spending on education and welfare programs, and worked tirelessly to rebuild badly damaged infrastructure after devastating floods hit Connecticut in 1955.  Thanks to his popular platform and persistent optimism, Ribicoff was reelected in 1958 by the largest margin in Connecticut history.  He was the first — and to date, only — Jewish governor of Connecticut.

Newsweek’s issue of February 20, 1961 featured then-Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Abraham Ribicoff.

A longtime friend of fellow New England Democrat John F. Kennedy, Ribicoff served as President Kennedy’s secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare for a year and a half before returning to Connecticut to pursue the office of U.S. Senator in 1963.  He won handily and served as Senator for nearly two decades, retiring in 1981.

Further Reading

Obituary: Ribicoff of Connecticut Dies; Governor and Senator was 87New York Times

Abraham Alexander Ribicoff,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress