A graduate of the Yeshiva of Central Queens with an interest in US political history, Kew Gardens Hills’ Sam Verstandig got to see two major historical events – the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump, and the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on Congress – up close a few months ago from the Senate floor. Verstandig, who will be a senior this fall at the Yeshiva University High School for Boys (MTA), served as a Senate Page this winter, one of 100 high school juniors from around the country who participated in the nearly-two-century-old program that combines messenger duties on Capitol Hill with studies at the “very vigorous” Senate Page School.
The son of Ora and Stuart Verstandig, he described his memorable, truncated experiences last week in a Zoom speech, “Holding My Own As a United States Senate Page in Washington, DC,” which he delivered as the first part of a summer speaker series under the auspices of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Verstandig, who said he hopes to have a career in government service. “We got to witness history being made.”
Verstandig was appointed to the Page position, following a competitive nationwide application and interview process, by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), but, like all Pages, he served the senator’s party, not the senator himself. Pages are apolitical. His selection by Schumer “doesn’t mean I was politically aligned” with the positions of that senator or any other member of the Senate, Verstandig said; he did not share his views, or areas of agreement or disagreement, on any issue.
During his time in Washington, where he watched the impeachment trial and other standard congressional operations, Verstandig opened the Senate chamber door for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who presided at the trial, and stood in the chamber for President Trump’s State of the Union speech in January. No seats for the Pages – “We had to stand for two hours.”
Verstandig also performed the typical, less-exotic work of Senate Pages, who keep the legislative body running. They deliver messages, make sure that senators get to votes on time, tally roll calls in the chamber, and occasionally deliver glasses of water to the senators during lengthy debates. Other duties include preparing the chamber for Senate sessions, and carrying bills and amendments to the desk.
Verstandig followed in the footsteps of earlier Pages, who have served in the Senate since 1829; the first one was nine-year-old Grafton Hanson, who was appointed by Sen. Daniel Webster. Throughout the 19th century, Senate Pages were often local orphans or children of widowed mothers and their Senate income helped the family. A Page’s term of service normally lasts five months, but that of Verstandig and his fellow Pages ended in March, seven weeks after it began, cut short by the growing COVID-19 crisis. He stayed in a nearby dorm, and took the subway that shuttles members of the Senate and aides between the main Senate building and adjacent office buildings. As the seriousness of the pandemic became apparent, it did not appear to change the mood of the Senate, Verstandig said; it continued to be business as usual.
Prestigious gofers with a close-up view of history being made, and face-to-face access to the history makers, the Pages walked where lawmakers had walked for centuries, and the Pages served where such previous Senate Pages as writer Gore Vidal, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew had served.
Verstandig, who was named one of The Jewish Week’s 36 Under 36 emerging Jewish leaders in 2017, was an active member of the Yeshiva of Central Queens Mix It Up anti-bullying program and volunteered for NCSY’s Yachad organization, earlier served as an intern for State Assembly Member David Weprin, and for the Yeshiva University Office of Governmental Relations.
Verstandig spoke particularly highly of Schumer, who walked out of his office on a busy day to pose for a photograph with Verstandig’s visiting father, and of Sen. Cory Booker, who would bring cookies and cake out to the Pages from Senators-only caucuses, and share a d’var Torah with Verstandig on Fridays about the weekly Torah portion. “He was the favorite of all the Pages.”
Wearing a kipah throughout his time in DC, Verstandig managed to daven each day and fit in some time for Talmud study, and eat kosher meals supplied by his mother; he answered frequent questions about his Orthodox practice, and Pages and leaders of the program in turn made sure to find him kosher food for group events.
“I was able,” he says, “to be a proud Jew.”
By Steve Lipman