Philadelphia Jews Aren’t Changing Their Votes

Despite Economic Woes, Voters Hold Fast

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By Nathan Guttman

Published October 05, 2012, issue of October 12, 2012.
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In a classroom at a Jewish employment service in Center City Philadelphia, Naomi Mindlin is trying, for the first time in her life, to learn networking skills — a gateway, she believes, for finding a job in troubling times. The mother of two, who lives in Langhorne, Pa., is a retired modern dancer and freelance editor who is now in desperate need of a job. At 62, with a daughter in college and rising health insurance costs, her dream of retirement seems further away than ever.

In the course, organized by JEVS Human Services, a Jewish communal agency focused on employment solutions, Mindlin and other job seekers, most of them Jewish, are learning career strategies. On a day in late September, the topic was networking.

“You sent out 50 emails and only heard back from five? Don’t take it personally,” suggested Adam Shpall, the instructor. He teaches how to write a “two-minute script” for networking meetings and refers students to literature about the “art of shmoozing.”

The New Needy: Penny Kardon directs a career center with many older and educated clients.
Nathan Guttman
The New Needy: Penny Kardon directs a career center with many older and educated clients.

The agency has been helping the Jewish unemployed for more than 70 years, but since the recession hit, its client profile has changed. “We’re seeing more educated and older people walk in,” said Penny Kardon, director of career strategies at JEVS. “These people were never here before. They are not used to having these kinds of problems.”

It is a phenomenon new to the city, which is home to America’s fourth-largest Jewish community. Philadelphia has always had a mix of well-heeled Jewish families alongside newcomers and immigrants. A 2009 survey, the Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia, found the median annual income of Jewish Philadelphians to be between $75,000 and $99,000, slightly lower than other major Jewish populations but still well above the national average. A closer look demonstrates the diversity of the community. One in five Jewish families reported an income of more than $150,000, but one in seven families earned less than $25,000.

Election fever, felt throughout the state of Pennsylvania, has largely skipped these two extremes, focusing messages on middle-class families. Pennsylvania was seen as an early swing state and a key battleground for the Obama and Romney campaigns. As of early September, public opinion began breaking toward President Obama, leading some GOP groups, including the Republican Jewish Coalition, to pull ads from the state.

An RJC volunteer canvassing in Philadelphia’s Jewish neighborhoods in September stressed the issue of relations between the United States and Israel, promising that Mitt Romney would do a better job on this issue than Obama.

But concerns of Jewish voters seem to rest closer to home. With more than a quarter of a million of Pennsylvania’s residents losing their jobs since the recession began in late 2007, unemployment and its side effects of poverty, housing problems and food insecurity have taken front and center.

And yet for all the focus on the economy during this close presidential race, there’s little evidence that the Jews struggling to contain these negative consequences are changing their vote because of it.

At the JEVS training, Phil Levine, 29, of the northern suburb Ambler, is honing his job search skills while waiting for a response from a potential employer. A college graduate, Levine, who was laid off in April, said the next president should focus on jobs.

“Make it expensive to ship jobs elsewhere, give incentives to keep jobs in America,” he offered. But that is as far as his interest in politics reaches. The presidential race is not something Levine discusses with friends, and his knowledge of politics and news, he admits, comes solely from Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”

Naomi Mindlin also would like to see more focus on job creation, and “if the government has to spend money to get people working, then it should.” Both she and Levine plan to vote for Obama.

A diverse group of Jewish middle-class Philadelphians affected by the economic downturn interviewed by the Forward echoed a similar disconnect between the change in their financial status and in their political leanings. While unemployment and hardship altered their lifestyle, it did not change their political worldview. If anything, it seemed to embolden existing beliefs.

“The Democrats aren’t going to help,” said a senior citizen who identified himself as Arkadi, sitting with a group of Russian-speaking friends in front of an independent-living facility. “We are not looking for [the] government to help.”

But for Debra Rosen, who was unemployed for two years after being laid off from the high-paying job she held for 16 years, economic realities led to an opposite conclusion. “I was always a Democrat, and this didn’t change my mind,” she said. If anything, the battle that Congressional Democrats led to extend unemployment benefits “solidified my support” for the party.


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