When North Carolina’s largest city was named in February as the Democratic party’s choice for its presidential nominating convention in the late summer of 2012, Jews in the “Queen City” began giving some thought to their role.
With a local Jewish community roughly the size of Obama’s slim margin of victory in North Carolina in 2008, Jews in Charlotte say they’ll be ready. Depending on how you define “Jewish,” Charlotte has anywhere between 8,000 and 14,000 Jews — in a city of 757,000 — and the entire state of North Carolina has an estimated 26,000 Jewish residents (0.3 percent of the total population).
Leaders of the local Jewish community, regardless of political affiliation, believe it is their primary role to serve as hosts to Jewish delegates and activists. Jeff Epstein, chairman of the local Jewish Community Relations Council, said that he hopes the convention will be an opportunity to demonstrate local Jewish hospitality, as well as to show how Jewish life has flourished in recent decades with the growth of the city’s banking industry, the influx of young professionals and the development of the 54-acre Shalom Park, which is home to two synagogues, a day school, Jewish Family Services and more. “We are the first Jewish community to have a campus environment, with the offices of all our major organizations all in one place,” Epstein said.
“While not homogenous, we recognize that if we want to have a Jewish life we need to come together. Everyone needs to be involved,” explained Sue Worrell, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte, which is also located at Shalom Park.
Both Worrell and Epstein noted how the local Jewish community has both embraced and been integrated into the Charlotte culture, peacefully cohabitating with evangelical Christians and experiencing little anti-Semitism.
Although at this early stage Worrell couldn’t point to an exact platform the local Jewish community will adopt for the DNC, she said they plan on partnering with and echoing the causes of larger national Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee.
In the past, Worrell has been highly supportive of Israel’s foreign policy decisions, “Israel has tried every means acceptable, every other alternative means. We feel very strongly that Israel has the moral right and responsibility to defend its own citizens, and that’s what it’s doing,” she said at the time of a protest rally in 2009 where hundreds gathered in Marshall Park to protest Israel’s occupation of Gaza.
Anti-Defamation League spokeswoman Stacy Burdett said that her organization plans on hosting events on the sidelines of both Democratic and Republican conventions (the RNC will be in Tampa) alongside other Jewish advocacy groups such as AIPAC. She added that ADL will also send the organization’s platform statement to both major political parties, as they did in the 2008.
Despite the small size of the Jewish community, Chabad Lubavitch leader Rabbi Yossi Groner thinks visiting Jews of all kinds will find what they need. He plans on supervising the city’s only kosher catering company, Kosher Charlotte, and reaching out to the community to find places for people to stay.
“We are willing to provide as many of the services we are capable of providing; anything from kosher meals to a place to stay for Shabbat,” Groner said. He noted that the local Jewish Community Relations Council has brought major Jewish figures to speak, such as former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, and held large social events serving kosher food that were attended by hundreds of Jews.
Epstein from the JCRC added that he hopes that the Jewish community becomes involved in the debates of the day, though he foresees obstacles that might make this goal difficult to achieve. “The biggest problem is apathy. People are busy with their lives and do not want to take the time to get involved in politics,” said Epstein.
“You have to have a variety of opportunities for getting people involved,” he said, holding out hope that the convention could make the local Jewish community more committed to becoming involved in political issues, engaging firsthand with the national political process.