The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a prominent Conservative synagogue in central Queens, occupies a large, sand-colored building next to a Chevrolet dealership on Queens Boulevard, a busy thoroughfare that cuts through the community’s hulking brick housing complexes.
On a recent Friday night, about three dozen congregants gathered in a small, carpeted room inside the Jewish Center, singing along with Hazan Henry Rosenblum as he forcefully chanted the Sabbath liturgy. Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, a bespectacled man with a mop of curly, grey-brown hair who has led the congregation for 27 years, leaned back in a chair against the wall, singing quietly with his congregants.
The calm predictability of the Sabbath service — a scene that was unfolding in parallel in the Bukharian synagogue across the street — stood in stark contrast to the political upheaval in Forest Hills as Rep. Anthony Weiner’s career unraveled in the national spotlight. Weiner, who lives in Forest Hills, represents the fourth largest Jewish congressional district in the United States.
After days of denial, Weiner, a Democrat, admitted on June 6 to engaging in a series of highly suggestive Twitter and Facebook message and photo exchanges with six women over the past few years. The congressman’s spokeswoman subsequently announced that he would be taking a leave of absence from the House while he seeks treatment at an undisclosed facility. On June 13, stopping short of calling for the congressman’s resignation, President Obama said that if he were in Weiner’s place, he would step down. Several Democratic powerhouses, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have pressed Weiner to resign.
On the sidewalk outside of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, a row of colorful news boxes broadcasted the news. “Weiner scandal grows…SEX SICK,” the cover page of the Forest Hills/Western Courier read. The Queens Chronicle asked, “Should He Stay or Should He Go?”
Rabbi Skolnik has thus far declined to address that question with his congregants, some 700 individuals. “I think that there are better things to be talking about at synagogue than my congressman and his peculiar Twitter habits,” he said. Instead, he directed the synagogue’s members to read the latest installment of his column in The Jewish Week, where he delivered with great pathos a quiet indictment of Weiner’s indiscretions.
“As a rabbi and a friend, it would seem to me that he needs to sort out his priorities right now,” Skolnik wrote. “There is much repair to be done — much tikkun — and I don’t know that holding on to his job is more important than holding on to his family.”
When it comes to Jewish interests, however, the question of whether Weiner will remain in Congress is in some ways less pressing than the question of what will happen to his district. The 2012 federal redistricting process mandates that New York state must lose two seats in the House of Representatives next year. Weiner’s District 9 — which encompasses parts of Queens and Brooklyn — was originally considered a safe seat. But Weiner’s follies have put his district at risk. State and federal Democrats could decide to chop up District 9, allocating pieces of it to adjacent Congressional territories. The dissolution of Weiner’s district would mean the dissolution of one of the most solidly Jewish Congressional blocs in the country.
Congressional District 9, like so many of New York’s districts, looks like an amorphous milk splat on the map, covering south central Queens and south Brooklyn. Last represented by Weiner’s political mentor, now-Senator Charles Schumer, the district originally encompassed just parts of Brooklyn. It was redistricted twice in the past 20 years — in 1992 and 2002 — to include large portions of Queens. Weiner has represented District 9 since 1999.
Today, the district includes some of the most historic Jewish neighborhoods in the two boroughs, localities that represent the breadth of American Jewish ethnic and religious diversity. In Brooklyn, one can find secular Russians in Sheepshead Bay and Orthodox Russians in Midwood. Queens is home to Orthodox and secular Bukharians (Central Asians) in Forest Hills and Rego Park and Orthodox Israelis in Kew Gardens Hills.
Weiner’s district is the fourth most Jewish district in the country, with 173,185 Jews, according to 2006 data compiled by Skagit Valley College Dean David M. Paul for the Mandell L. Berman Institute North American Jewish Data Bank. The top three Jewish districts cited in the report are also represented by Jewish Democrats. Rep. Ted Deutch’s 19th Congressional District in Florida’s Palm Beach and Broward counties is first, followed by Rep. Jerrold Nadler’s 8th Congressional District in western Manhattan and Brooklyn, and Rep. Henry Waxman’s 30th Congressional District in West Los Angeles County.
By many accounts, Weiner, who was raised in a Jewish home in Park Slope, has been a responsive representative to his Jewish constituents. Weiner embodies a particular blend of traits common to many Jewish politicians: He votes left on social issues and right — in Weiner’s case, hard right — on Israel policy. As a congressman, Weiner famously tried to block the Palestinian delegation from the United Nations, saying in 2006 that they “should start packing their little Palestinian terrorist bags.” Weiner was also a staunch advocate of Obama’s health care plan, eagerly taking on Tea Party hecklers.
“He is the first to step up to the plate for Israel,” said Cynthia Zalisky, executive director of the Queens Jewish Community Council. The organization represents a network of 144 synagogues and Jewish community centers in Queens; its facility is located across the street from Weiner’s Forest Hills office. “We depend on and lean on him to say what needs to be said in Washington.”
Jonathan Greenspun, a former commissioner in the Bloomberg administration who ran the mayor’s community affairs operations, said, “Weiner has set the standard for anyone who would replace him in that they would have to be as good if not better when it comes to issues of foreign policy and Israel.
“The real question,” Greenspun added, “is who else is going to do that? Who else is going to put themselves out there on that? Who will say, ‘I wave the progressive banner, but I am willing to go to the lion’s den and take on the extreme left when it comes to Israel’?”
Perhaps no one will. If Weiner’s district is chopped up in redistricting, then the dynamics of Jewish electoral politics in New York could change. Jewish politicos point to the story of the late Stephen Solarz, a Jewish Democrat who represented a largely Jewish district in Brooklyn between 1975 and 1993. When Solarz’s district was cut into six pieces, he found himself without a base. He eventually ran a losing campaign in a heavily Latino district.
Opinions vary on whether the loss of Weiner’s district would spell a new reality for Jewish politics in New York. Hank Sheinkopf, a New York Democratic consultant, said that losing District 9 would expose the fact that the Jewish population in New York has dropped significantly in the past half century as urban Jews have died or moved to the suburbs. “One of the unexpected consequences of this would be the revelation of the truth, which is that Jews have limited power and limited voting strength in New York City,” Sheinkopf said.
On the other hand, when it comes to advancing Jewish interests — interests that go beyond Israel to include health care, education, and security issues — having a small, critical mass of Jews in multiple districts might be just as effective as having one large bloc of Jews in a single district. David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, is a proponent of this view. Pollock said that the critical mass depends on the district, but could be as few as 10,000 Jews or as many as 50,000. New York’s congressional districts must each include 717,707 people.
“The policy of JCRC in the past has been that we have no expectation for Jews to be represented by Jews,” Pollock said. “What we need to ensure is that the Jewish community is not fragmented to the point that the constituents of a particular district cannot get the attention of their elected representative.”
Whether Weiner’s district will hit the chopping block is still a major unknown. New York State’s redistricting process is currently at a standstill as state lawmakers and the governor deliberate which redistricting mechanism to use — either an independent commission or a traditional partisan procedure. Several minority-majority districts are protected in the redistricting process by the Voting Rights Act, which further complicates decision-making.
As far as the Forest Hills Jewish Center community is concerned, the Weiner revelations have all but sealed the district’s fate. “No one expresses strong feelings about it, but everyone expects it to happen,” Skolnik said.
Contact Naomi Zeveloff at firstname.lastname@example.org
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.