At an early age, Steven M. Dettelbach saw the impact his parents, both attorneys, had on others. It’s no wonder that he chose to become an attorney and later was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio by President Barack Obama, his former classmate at Harvard Law School.
“As a kid who grew up in Jewish Cleveland, the idea of making the world a better place was part of the DNA of our community,” said Dettelbach, who earned his undergraduate degree in government from Dartmouth College.
“What I was always taught, both in my family and in our community, was that it’s great for a person to do well, but you need to also do good. That’s part of how we define ourselves as Jews. Not just to look out for yourself but when you finish, you want to look back and say the world is a little bit of a better place because you helped other people.”
As a child, Dettelbach saw the lessons lived by his parents, Marcia Dettelbach and Tom Dettelbach. He recalls some of those cases, like when his father helped a man who had a leg amputated after a forklift accident or when a youth was left in a coma due to an auto exhaust leak at a local drive-in movie theater.
“I grew up thinking that the law was a tool to make the world a better place,” he said. “Most people look at the law and think the law is some indecipherable, semi-English language in a dusty book that sits on shelf or a faded document in a museum in Washington, D.C., that sits under a piece of glass or the results of some legal internet search. To me, that’s not what the law is.
“To me, the law is something that has to help people out on the streets of our community at two in the morning dealing with violence or defining their rights. It was something that ensures that our country lives up to the idea that it is a truly fair and equal place. The law has to be a tool to make government, which people are very cynical about, more accountable to people and to hold people responsible who break the public trust.”
Dettelbach speaks with pride of the roles Jews played in the 1960s civil rights movement and more recently with the city of Cleveland’s consent decree, a 105-page agreement that addressed concerns about the police department’s use of force policies and practices, which is being used as a model across the country.
“For me as a Jew, when we do good in the community, it makes me feel like we’re fulfilling our role as being a people that doesn’t just look out for our own narrow interests,” he said. “Jewish involvement in our reform effort is something that makes me very proud. Even when specific issues don’t affect us as directly as others, we feel a duty to seek justice. That is the true meaning of tikkun olam.”
– Bob Jacob