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Have We Burned Our Bridges?  

I presented the question to a roundtable of askanim and people on the street: Has our community burned bridges with over-the-top demonstrations of support for one party over another?

Support for the Republican president is in the stratosphere among Orthodox voters — as evidenced by the images from last Sunday’s “Jews for Trump” caravan rally from Ocean Parkway to Trump Tower. However, for the dedicated corps of askanim who advocate for the klal in government hallways and legislative rooms, there is a delicate balance to be struck. The askanim often must lobby local officials, who are overwhelmingly Democrat and would prefer that the community seeking their help not vocally and vitriolically denigrate their party.

In the past, Jews in galus have been cautious to maintain strong relationships with whoever is in power and whoever has the potential to rise to power. Some of the community’s recent behavior has seemed like a strong departure from that policy, and many wonder about the long-term repercussions.

I presented the question to a roundtable of askanim and people on the street: Has our community burned bridges with over-the-top demonstrations of support for one party over another? And how do you build lines of communication with officials who know we didn’t vote for them?

Rabbi Eli Steinberg, Communications consultant and Columnist

I’ve found in my experience that political operatives don’t have a problem with you not supporting them if you show you can stand for something. Of course, they want to see that there’s a way they can get your support as well. If you’re clear about what it is that’s in the way — concerns over religious liberty, for example — they will actually understand you.

There is a very clear distinction between people who operate in good faith and people who don’t. And you can tell it when you engage with them. Those who operate in good faith recognize that you can have differences of opinion about how to solve the big issues. And so long as that’s a given, there’s nobody I can’t work with, and nobody — not even a Democratic Socialist — who I’d write off just because of their politics.

And they don’t write me off because of my support for, say, the president. Because I explained to them how I got to this place, and they — those who want to — hear me.

 

Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for government affairs at Agudath Israel of America

The transition between two administrations of different political parties can be very challenging. Building relationships is a key to good advocacy, and the trust that is needed to build those connections takes time and effort. For us, every new administration begins, in a very real sense, the process of starting over again. Meeting new people, acquainting them with our community, its institutions and its needs. It is indeed difficult, and must be done in a relatively short time frame so that advocacy can be as seamless as possible.

It is also the case that sometimes new administration officials do not have the background and experience to make a smooth adjustment. They might have come from remote parts of the country and were active only on state and local levels. They might have come from outside the political sphere entirely. They might have had little contact with our community and little knowledge of our issues and concerns. “Inside the Beltway” Washington is its own world and operates according to its own rules. To be thrust into that environment and be ill-equipped to deal with it can lead to misunderstandings and mistakes.

In some instances, new administrations bring in “old faces” as well as new ones. Many staffers from the Hill with whom we have worked before may transfer into the White House or federal agencies to assume new positions and roles. The “revolving door” is also not uncommon, whereby those who worked in previous administrations, and then went into the private sector when their party’s candidate lost, return to fill positions when their party regains power. This helps with continuity and strengthening already-established relationships.

There is no question that being perceived as being “on the other side of the issues” is a hurdle, and this includes being seen as a community that did not provide a candidate electoral support. It can, and does, affect access and the ability to have input into legislative and policy matters, but it is one that can be overcome.

First, as I always emphasize, we can always find issues of mutual concern on which we can work together. Second, I have never encountered a White House where the door was sealed shut. Presidential administrations understand that, once in office, they represent the American public, and they want to address the needs of diverse communities when they can, regardless of other differences or electoral issues. If successful, the assistance is appreciated and makes a good impression on the community and is ultimately a feather in the administration’s cap.

So while the road might be somewhat rocky in the beginning, over time it can be a much smoother and productive journey.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America

I think it’s wise, from an entirely pragmatic perspective, for the frum community to not be seen by any party as “in the bag.” That way we’re not taken for granted and are valued as a community that is “in play,” which is the perception most likely to serve us well.

Obviously there is the issue of “Issues,” where we have clear positions and, at any given time, one party will reflect our stances better than the other. But there are an abundance of issues, and it would be a mistake to assume that any party truly represents our feelings on all of them. So I think it’s best to not be seen by either party as in its pocket or the pocket of the other one.


Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, director of New York government relations at Agudah Israel of America

It was never told to me directly because, obviously, people are smarter than that. But it’s the feeling you get when calls aren’t returned, you don’t get certain meetings, or you make certain requests and people listen and then just don’t act on it — it’s obvious that they don’t look at us as a voting bloc that is responsive to them.

The only way we can make a difference is if we really come out in big numbers and vote. Then it could make a difference for 2021. You can’t be ignored if you’re a big voting bloc, especially in primaries if we register as Democrats.

Yossi Gestetner, marketing executive and cofounder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council (OJPAC), to combat bias against the community in the media

I disagree with the premise of your question, because anybody who follows politics knows that the Orthodox community overwhelmingly voted for Attorney General Tish James in her Democratic primary, for Bill de Blasio — certainly in his first time around — and for Governor Andrew Cuomo. These are all Democrats. The fact the same community is voting Republican in the general election is a good thing; it shows that this community is not taken for granted and that this community has different perspectives.

Proof of what I am saying is that whether it’s de Blasio, Cuomo, or Tish James — all of them have made personal and expensive efforts to reach out to the community. They visit neighborhoods, they meet with rabbis, they spend campaign money in the community. It is obviously known by the highest-ranking politicians in New York that Orthodox Jewish voters are up for grabs, even for the Democrats.

But even the whole concept of “this community” — it’s not monolithic. You have to look at the primary results and the general election results — sometimes they’re higher for one party, sometimes the numbers are lower. To say that Orthodox Jews vote in large numbers for only one party is not the case.

Ninety percent of African Americans have been voting for Democrats for decades — is that seen as a problem? I don’t know. It seems more like just a powerful political machine that the Democratic Party needs to accommodate. That’s actually a good thing for African Americans.

Maury Litwack, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s TEACH Coalition

First off, the idea that the frum community is the only group that there is discussion about — whether they’re leaning to the right or leaning to the left — is obviously not true. When I worked for Miami-Dade County before I started working for the klal, I remember that there were a lot of reports and stories in that area — was the Haitian community going to vote this way, or were they going to vote that way? Was the Cuban community going to vote this way, or that way? Was the Jewish community going to vote this way or that way?

This topic is an interesting discussion, but it’s not unique to the frum community.

Secondly, any good elected official — when the phone rings, they pick up. I worked for elected officials when I worked in Congress, and when the phone rang, I didn’t ask, “Oh, your community leans more to the right,” or, “Your community leans more to the left.” Any good elected official is going to take the time to have conversations and meet with people and get to know them, regardless if there is a perception that they lean one way or the other politically.

There’s a very, very long history in the frum community and tremendous work that’s been done in meeting candidates after the election when there was even a perception that the community was not supporting them — regardless of what party they represent. And I think that because of that, it makes more of an impact on advocacy, because good elected officials want to have conversations and keep an open mind. And it’s our responsibility to facilitate those conversations and extend the outreach.

 

David Shor, a Boro Park resident, political observer, and Bush Republican who was initially skeptical of Trump

I didn’t believe [Trump] would keep his promises or support religious rights, or maybe he would force Israel into a bad deal with the Palestinians. I was wrong about everything, obviously. He turned out to be extremely good for Eretz Yisrael.

What’s bad isn’t that we are too closely aligned with the Republicans nationally. Rather, what’s bad is that we can’t be aligned with the Democrats, as they’ve abandoned all our priorities both domestically and abroad, and they’ve aligned with the forces determined to undermine our priorities. We’d be the happiest if both parties would agree on our priorities, and that would certainly be wonderful, but sadly that’s not the case.

The smarter position would be, instead of being aligned with the personalities — the MAGA types — we would do well to be in line with policies. But we have to just be happy that there’s one party that’s ready to deliver what we want. Certainly we would rather it be bipartisan, but sadly, there’s nothing that’s bipartisan anymore.

I don’t think it’s good that we’re ridiculing Democrats — there should be a respectful relationship, even if we have our very big differences, and even if we say openly that we support Republicans. That is the point. It’s the policies that we are supporting — it’s not about the people or the party. We aren’t Republicans per se — we are advocates for school choice, we are advocates for lower taxes, and when it comes to foreign policy, we all know what we want. And should the right Democrat come along who advocates for our priorities, then certainly we should be there for him.

Moshe Gold, a Monsey school administrator

Yes, we should all vote for one party — the Republican Party. There’s no other option. The Democrats used to be semi-decent. These days they are the Squad. They don’t respect us, they don’t care about our values. They don’t share anything with us.

But in a place such as Monsey, a person has to be registered as a Democrat in order to be able to have some say in the Democratic primaries, where the final winner is usually decided. But when it comes to the actual voting booth? Straight Republican. It wasn’t that many years ago that New York had a Republican governor, George Pataki, New York City had a Republican mayor, Rudy Giuliani, and voted for a Republican president, Ronald Reagan. That could happen again.

We have to flip New York and show our hakaras hatov to President Donald J. Trump. You might get some people who are going to say, “Hey, you don’t vote for our party.” But the pros outweigh it by far. If there’s a big surge in voting, even if it’s for the Republican, the Democrats are going to try to get that vote.

We have to vote in big numbers for the party that has our values.

Yoel Lefkowitz, a community activist and a longtime aide to Attorney General Letitia James

It is very important for our community to be seen as a swing vote, especially upstate. It is very dangerous, especially in New York City, that we are seen as an ultra-right-wing constituency in middle of the most liberal city in the United States.

But the good part of this is that now our community is motivated to vote. Until now we just flat-out didn’t vote. We really must up our game and vote in every election the way we are doing in this election. Elected officials check out voting data that is broken down street by street. We must build up a strong bloc vote so politicians will want our vote again.

Avi Schnall, director of the New Jersey office of Agudath Israel of America

I think it’s absolutely terrible that the Orthodox community could be positioning themselves as a one-party community. There is no such thing as all Democrats being bad and all Republicans being good. And the proof is in the pudding. You look at Donald Trump — he did great things for the Jewish community.

But then you bring it down to the local level. Take a town like Jackson Township — it has done whatever it can possibly do to keep Jews out. They are doing whatever they can to hinder the yeshivah system, they are denying them basic services. Do you know which party the entire government of Jackson Township is? They are entirely Republican.

Look at it from the other way. Look at [New Jersey’s] Governor Phil Murphy — he’s been absolutely great for us. There is no comparison between Governor Murphy and Governor Cuomo. Will we lump the two of them together because we don’t like Governor Cuomo? What a foolish mistake.

Here’s a better example — Senator Bob Menendez. Senator Menendez put his political career on the line to fight Obama on the Iran deal. He was the first Democrat who came out against it — he even bucked Obama, who was the Democratic hero, and he got investigated because of that. But what happened when he ran for reelection? Over 50 percent of Lakewood voted for his opponent, the Republican.

What was the outcome? Menendez won anyway, and he is our senator for the following six years. What does he see? “Even when I go out to bat for the Jewish community, they’re still not going to vote for me. So what should I do it for?”

It was a terrible, terrible thing . And it hurts us. It’s only because of the fact that he is a good guy that he didn’t change his relationship to us because of it. But there also has not been any major national issue that we would need him to come out for us.

I really hope that when Governor Murphy runs for reelection next year, the community will support him. We’re going to have to do a lot of work in getting out the word that we have to be realistic and practical when it comes to local elections. We are not a one-party community. And Governor Murphy has been there for us every step of the way — when it comes to yeshivah funding, when it comes to anti-Semitism — he has been the one who got Rise Up Ocean County off Facebook — when it comes to letting yeshivos be open now, despite COVID. How can we vote for a Republican when Murphy has been better for us than the last Republican governor, Chris Christie?

When Christie, a Republican, was governor, and then Murphy, a Democrat, took over, they had no problem with me, even though our community was seen as close to Christie. We reached out to him to see if we could build a relationship with him. I don’t think he looks at what our relationship was with the previous administration — he did get 50 percent of the vote in Lakewood, even though 90 percent of the community voted for Trump. He sees that the community looks at the bottom line practicality — who is going to help me and who is not going to help me.

And if the community votes strongly for Murphy but a Republican wins next year, I will absolutely be able to build a relationship with them. I explain that the community that Governor Murphy has been there for us so we supported him, and if you’ll be there for us, we will support you. That’s how it goes. But if we lock ourselves into one particular party and we only vote for people of that party, we will have a very hard time building those relationships.

 

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 833)

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