Rep. Todd Jones Honors His Jewish Roots

Rep. Todd Jones Honors His Jewish Roots

“Christian or Jewish, just do the right thing,” was the message Todd Jones received growing up.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Forsyth County Republican state representative Todd Jones (right) with Rabbi Levi Mentz.
Forsyth County Republican state representative Todd Jones (right) with Rabbi Levi Mentz.

Todd Jones is clear when asked about his religious identification.

“I don’t want to be judged by one hour of every week, where I sit,” said the

Republican state representative from Forsyth County. “I want to be judged on seven days a week, 24 hours a day, so I work as hard as I can with the ethos that both sets of grandparents gave me.”

By traditional Jewish law, which relies on matrilineal descent, Jones is Jewish. His mother, Gail Kaplan, is descended from Jewish immigrants who came to the United States from Russia in the 1910s. His late father, Walter, was Presbyterian.

Jones used the term “bi-religious” in an interview, later adding, “That is just a phraseology, but I do consider myself of both faiths.”

Throughout the 2021-22 legislative term, state Rep. Mike Wilensky was referred to in these pages as “the only Jewish member of the General Assembly.” The Dunwoody Democrat knew of several House members with Jewish branches on their family trees, but he was unaware of Jones’s background. When informed, Wilensky said, “Learning that he is half-Jewish is exciting. He is an extremely intelligent, kind and hard-working state representative.”

Rep. Todd Jones speaking on the floor of the Georgia House.

Jones’s story began in the 1950s, when the Kaplans of Connecticut and the Joneses of New Jersey moved to south Florida. There, Walter Jones, who had enlisted in the Marine Corps, met and married Gail Kaplan. Todd was born in August 1967.

Walter served two tours of combat duty in Vietnam before being stationed on Okinawa in Japan. Todd and his mother lived in Marine Corps communities at Camp LeJeune, N.C., and Quantico, Va., and spent a great deal of time with both sets of grandparents in south Florida.

Jones said that when he was born the families disagreed over whether he should be raised Jewish or Christian. It was decided that the boy would experience both traditions. That meant spending Jewish holidays, such as Passover and Chanukah — as well as the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — with the Kaplans and Christian holidays with his father’s parents.

“As I got older, 10, 11, 12, I started to ask. When you’re that young you’re still inquisitive,” Jones said. “I asked, for instance, why I wasn’t baptized, why wasn’t I a bar mitzvah.”

Jones was told that the decision made within the family was, in essence, that “We’re going to raise him to be a good person.”

Todd and Tracey Jones discussed their son’s condition on WXIA-TV.

Looking back, he said, “I loved both my sets of grandparents. I think they raised me to really just do the right thing, whether Christian or Jewish, just do the right thing.”

Jones met his wife, Tracey, in middle school. “What started out as this annoying boy I debated against in 7th grade (he was in 8th … he thought his grade ruled the school!), somehow just a few years later morphed into this amazing guy I began dating in high school,” she wrote on the website of Rustic Trace, her arts and crafts company.

At the beach one day, Tracey asked Todd about his religious upbringing. She was, he said, unfazed by his explanation. The couple, both University of Florida graduates, married in 1993 and are the parents of three adult sons and a daughter in high school.

Jones has a close relationship with Congregation Beth Israel, in Cumming, Ga., which was established by Chabad of Forsyth and Rabbi Levi Mentz. When plans to build a synagogue and community center were announced in February 2020, Jones told the gathering that the project was “what we want in Forsyth County for decades to come.” Tracey, who attends Browns Bridge Church in Cumming, also has engaged with the Beth Israel community.

Mentz calls Jones a “dear friend” and “a very, very, very early founding member” of Beth Israel. “Something that both of us connected about is that we, the synagogue’s ideology, Chabad ideology, is very much aligned with the way Todd Jones sees things and sees the world,” Mentz said.

It is not enough, Mentz elaborated, for Jews to see themselves as private citizens. “Rather, we have a responsibility to be good public ambassadors,” to make sure that not only are personal needs met but “we have a responsibility to make sure that our area and the people around us are bettered,” he said.

Professionally, Jones is a technology executive, a lawyer who assists companies on what are called triple bottom line concerns: social, environmental and financial impacts.

Jones has represented House District 25 — comprised of southeast Forsyth County and, after redistricting, also a piece of northern Fulton County — since January 2017. He is seeking a fourth term in November’s general election.

Jones, whose politically formative years were during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, said his priorities are less hot-button social issues than economic development, education, healthcare and transportation.

“As I was growing up, I would never see a government entity, no matter what intentions it had, that could function as well as a community. A community can transcend anything a government can do,” Jones said.

Mental health reform is one issue, though, where Todd and Tracey Jones have personal experience in how government can assist the community.

Just this year, the General Assembly took up sweeping legislation that included mental health parity, which requires insurance companies to treat medical and mental health coverage equally. Tracey testified before the House Health and Human Services Committee, tearfully telling lawmakers: “I never imagined I would be standing here today advocating for the passage of a mental health bill. I know there’s no other place I should be than right here for my son, Justin.”

Justin Jones was an outstanding student and debater in high school before his mental health deteriorated. It took five years for him to get a diagnosis of Schizoaffective disorder and anosognosia, a condition in which patients are unaware or unable to understand their psychiatric condition. Finding an effective treatment plan took another three years and visits to 20 different facilities in four states.

“I’m angry that it has taken more than eight years for Justin to get the necessary and appropriate mental health care for his diagnosis,” Tracey testified.

“We pay the premium payments, they should provide the care,’’ she said of insurance companies that limited the length of her son’s facility stays. “Families and their loved ones with mental illness will never have to endure and follow the difficult and frustrating path that our son and family have had to endure.”

Todd, a co-sponsor of the legislation, called his wife’s testimony “magnificent.” The bill was signed into law in April by Gov. Brian Kemp.

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