At whatever point George Santos — who falsely claimed to be Jewish (later, “Jew-ish”) with Holocaust-survivor grandparents and a mother killed by the 9/11 attack, and who’s doubled down on a slew of other lies about his personal history — leaves Congress, a Nassau County legislator who is an Israeli-Ethiopian Orthodox Jewish woman [really!] may be a potential Repulican replacement.
Although Mazi Melesa Pilip of Great Neck was first elected as a Republican Nassau County legislator only in November 2021 — replacing four-term incumbent Democrat Ellen Birnbaum — she’s thinking big.
“I’m not going to lie to you, people are definitely asking me to run,” she told JTA during an interview conducted while running pre-Shabbat errands. “That doesn’t mean nothing.”
Nassau Republican leaders, led by chairman Joseph Cairo, have asked Santos to resign.
At age 12, Pilip came to Israel with her family in Operation Solomon, a covert airlift of 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel on 35 planes in only a day and a half in 1991. She later served in the IDF’s Tzanchanim Paratrooper’s Brigade.
While studying occupational therapy at the University of Haifa (she also earned a masters degree in diplomacy and security from Tel Aviv University), Pilip met her Ukrainian-Jewish husband who was living in the United States but had come to Haifa to study medicine. The two married and came to America, moving around for her husband’s medical rotations before settling in Great Neck.
Santos wrested the swing district — CD3 on Nassau’s north shore and adjacent Queens — from a decade of Democratic control after the incumbent, Tom Suozzi, retired in a failed run for governor. He defeated his opponent, Robert Zimmerman, who is Jewish, by eight points.
Pilip told JTA that her journey into American politics was propelled by her experience advocating for fellow Ethiopian immigrants in Israel and by her children’s experience with antisemitism in their Long Island schools.
“I am a strong believer, if you see something’s not working well for your community, or for yourself, you have to be involved,” she said. “You can’t just complain from outside.”
In her JTA interview, Pilip said she had put her reputation on the line campaigning for him last year. “I trusted him and I told people to vote for him. I campaigned with him,” she said.”
She said she enjoys the hustle of campaigning.
“I was going from synagogue to synagogue, bringing out the vote,” she told Jewish Home last year. “Sometimes I would leave Friday night to go to a shul and I would sleep at someone’s house because I’m shomer Shabbat and I couldn’t walk back home. And then I would go to another synagogue the next day, on Shabbat, to spend time there and talk to people. Only when Shabbat was over would I go home. I did this for two months. It was intense but it was worth it. I met a lot of people. I would go to train stations and park events — any event, large or small, I was there.”
She became a local celebrity, giving birth to twin daughters — her sixth and seventh children — just weeks before the election, JTA reported.
She said any decision about replacing Santos is up to Chairman Cairo.
Cairo led an effort to diversify GOP candidates on Long Island, and a year ago, at Pilip’s swearing-in ceremony, he explained why, according to the JTA: He was an Italian American whose parents favored Republican ideals but felt unwelcome in the GOP until they helped integrate it themselves, in New Jersey and then on Long Island. It had become his mission to bring more minority candidates into the fold, and he recruited several of them to run in the 2021 local elections.
Pedram Bal, a Persian Jew and the mayor of Great Neck, told Cairo he should look at Pilip, an Ethiopian-Jewish immigrant who was active in efforts to revitalize Great Neck, and who had been vice president of her synagogue, Kol Yisrael Achim. It was an easy sell, Cairo said, and it paid off.
“An Orthodox Jewish woman, a religious refugee from Ethiopia is elected as a Republican to the Nassau County legislature!” he marveled at the inauguration.
Of the many lies Santos has told about himself, Nassau County Republicans seemed especially offended by his claims of descent from Holocaust survivors.
“For him to make up this story, that his parents were Holocaust survivors is beyond the pale. It is simply tragic and outrageous, and disgusting,” said County Executive Bruce Blakeman, the first Jew elected to the position. “He is a stain on the House of Representatives. He’s a stain on the Third Congressional District.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition said Santos will not be welcome at its events. Another freshman Republican representative, Max Miller from Ohio, last week also called on Santos to resign, saying in a statement that Santos sought to “benefit from the murder of millions of Jewish people.”
“Why would you use this painful history and create something like this and tell people that his grandparents survived just for the political benefit of it?” Pilip said.
Pilip said her political interests were revived two years ago when her oldest son was preparing for bar mitzvah and he told her about antisemitic comments he endured from a classmate in the Great Neck Public Schools system. “He said, ‘Mom, you know, this child told me, I wish Hitler would kill you all’,” she recalled. “That a 12-year-old child would talk like this? It’s bad.”
So when Bal, Great Neck’s mayor, approached her about running for elected office, she was game.
She campaigned on reviving Great Neck’s downtown, but also acting as a bridge in among the multiple minority communities in the area.
Politico reported on Twitter last week that Republican state senator Jack Martins was also interested in filling Santos’ seat.