In her final address to the Georgia state Senate, Sen. Renee Unterman delivered an impassioned plea for passage of hate crimes legislation, speaking about anti-Semitism that she had experienced.
“It came from the heart,” Unterman told the AJT afterward. “It just meant so much to me because I’ve been through so much.”
Unterman, a Republican from the 45th District, opted not to seek re-election in 2020, instead waging an unsuccessful campaign for the Republican nomination from the 7th Congressional District.
In a halting voice, Unterman appealed to the religious beliefs of her fellow senators. She told the AJT that she wanted them to understand that “It wasn’t just a black and white issue, not just a race issue, but a religious issue.”
She said, “If they could identify with me, they could understand why this bill was important.”
In her remarks, Unterman also referenced the Oct. 12, 1958, bombing of The Temple and the Oct. 27, 2018, massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh as examples of the religious component necessitating hate crimes legislation.
The Senate and then the House overwhelmingly passed the hate crimes measure, which now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature.
Unterman, 66, told the Senate how, in her “young 30s,” she converted from Catholicism to Judaism before marrying Dr. Marc Unterman, whom she later divorced. She has since remarried.
“A lot of you have asked . . . why am I like a turtle with hard shell over me,” Unterman said.
“I never knew, when I converted, the joy, but I also never knew the discrimination that I would feel the rest of my life because of my faith and my religion. I didn’t know how tough you had to be, but I also know that God chose me for a reason,” she said.
When she ran for mayor of Loganville in 1986, not long after she had converted to Judaism, “I had people literally say to me we’re going to vote for you because we know you’re not Jewish” and were sure that she had converted and married a doctor to become rich, she told the Senate. “I heard every accusation in the world about not being Jewish, or you’re really not Jewish.”
Unterman recalled finding the “Thunderbolt,” a publication of the National States Rights Party, more than once in her driveway and finding a wooden cross on her lawn.
Unterman’s religious identification has been questioned in recent election cycles. In November 2019, her campaign manager, Brendan Jaspers, sent the AJT a statement that said, “Her son and daughter attended Hebrew school, and each had a bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah, respectively. She was one of the first congregants helping establish Temple Beth David in Snellville, and was a member for an estimated 25 years before moving to Buford. Over the years as an elected official, she has been invited to and attended church services as a guest, but she identifies as Jewish.”
A Gwinnett County native and graduate of Berkmar High School, Unterman holds a nursing degree from Georgia State University and a degree in social work from the University of Georgia. She worked as an emergency room and critical care nurse.
Unterman’s political career began as mayor of Loganville (1986-90 and 1996-1998) and as a Gwinnett County commissioner (1990-94), before being elected to the state House in 1998 and the state Senate in 2002, representing the 45th district.
Unterman told the AJT that she considered “the biggest triumph” of her career to be passage of legislation that placed a constitutional amendment on the ballot that created the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund, which passed with 83 percent approval by voters in 2016.