Paul J. Fishman said growing up in New Jersey, his parents instilled him with a combination of strong Jewish commitments and serious public service.
“I got from them both a real cultural and genetic commitment to doing public service and also a pretty good understanding of how that work tied in with Judaism,” he told NJJN.
On Sunday morning, Nov. 20, Fishman will speak at Har Sinai Temple in Pennington about the connections between his work as U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey and the Jewish influences on his life.
Suggesting that much of his legal work has been inspired, albeit perhaps not consciously, by his interest in and commitment to tikun olam, he said, “I think if you grow up in a house where your parents are committed to public service and you go to synagogue relatively frequently and hear what Jewish values are, I think that must have played a substantial role in how I think of my career and as a lawyer to give back.”
Born in New York City, Fishman, 59, grew up in River Edge, where his father, Myer, was a founder and president of Temple Shalom, now Temple Avodat Shalom. Myer Fishman, a chemistry professor at City College of New York, was also active in civic life, presiding over school boards and the Lions Club as well as a community adult education program. Paul told NJJN that his father also brought his service ethic to his job by creating and serving as director of programs that admitted and financially supported minority students participating in biomedical research at CCNY.
“He was very much an advocate for making sure institutions of government served all members of the community, particularly those from underprivileged backgrounds,” Fishman said.
Fishman’s mother, Gloria, who was also active in the synagogue, worked with a public school child study team and later ran communications for what was then the YMHA of Bergen County in Washington Township.
Paul Fishman himself was president of the youth group JFTY (Jersey Federation of Temple Youth) for two years. The summer before his senior year of high school he was one of 18 participants in the Urban Mitzvah Corps. Founded 46 years ago by the Reform movement’s National Federation of Temple Youth, the program brings students to New Brunswick for six weeks to volunteer as counselors at sandlot day camps or to work with senior citizens or in legal services. “That was the first time in my life that I really did public service work of any consequence, and I found it pretty rewarding,” Fishman said.
From the time he left for college until a few years ago, Fishman was not involved in Jewish organizations or structured Jewish life, he said. But when his children were approaching bar mitzva age, the Montclair resident started spending more time at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, which, he said, is “a very comfortable, wonderful place to be.”
A Princeton University graduate (class of 1978), Fishman finished Harvard Law School in 1982, then spent a year in a clerkship with the Hon. Edward R. Becker of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Fishman started in an entry-level position in the office he now runs, serving as deputy chief and chief of the criminal division, chief of narcotics, and eventually the office’s second-highest official.
Fishman left the Justice Department in 1994 to become a partner in the New York-based firm of Friedman Kaplan Seiler & Adelman, where he specialized in white-collar crime.
Appointed as New Jersey’s U.S. attorney in 2009, Fishman and the 150 attorneys who work for him are responsible for primarily two types of cases: civil cases in which the United States is a party, and criminal cases brought by the federal government.
Fishman considers his office’s efforts toward “putting bad people in jail and keeping people safe from them” as serious and worthy public-interest work. But because the Department of Justice has a broader mandate to protect people’s civil rights and to protect vulnerable communities, he said, “I have expanded my bandwidth to talk about other issues.”
His office started the first prisoner reentry court in New Jersey, which changes the model from inmates visiting a parole officer to having a more integrated, robust system to pay attention to what prisoners need to make it on the outside. They report to a federal judge every two weeks and receive help finding a job or place to live, and getting mental health or educational services. The goal is to give former inmates “a meaningful shot of returning to, or for the first time becoming, a productive member of society,” he said.
Fishman also ran a two-and-a-half-year investigation of the police department in Newark to determine whether they were “engaging in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing.” As a result of the investigation, the city committed to five years of police reform, supervised by a monitor.
Fishman said his office is also making an effort to reach out to locals who don’t have a good relationship with the authorities,
“We are doing an enormous amount of outreach to communities in New Jersey defined by ethnicity, religion, or race who don’t feel the criminal justice system gives them a fair shot and don’t appreciate what law enforcement can and should do for them….” The outreach also extends to “groups targeted by other people for reason of bias and discrimination.”
Har Sinai Temple’s Rabbi Stuart Pollack said, “Our congregation is looking forward to hosting Paul Fishman, whose resume speaks to the highest quality of legal expertise, integrity, and honesty. We look forward to hearing and sharing in his wisdom, and his understanding of how the judiciary can enhance the quality of all our lives.”