In the summer of 2002, Simcha Felder, an Orthodox Jew and Democratic state assemblyman representing the heavily Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood of Boro Park, arranged a 500-person community breakfast between his constituents and Michael Bloomberg. As Felder tells it, people in the neighborhood were livid about the new mayor’s hike on real estate taxes — so livid, in fact, that Felder worried Bloomberg would get booed.
“The only thing they knew about him was that they didn’t like him,” Felder recalled.
As it turned out, the July breakfast was a turning point. When the mayor addressed the crowd, Felder said, he didn’t talk sentimentally about his bubbe or love of noodle kugel; he cut to the chase about the necessity of the tax increase — and won, improbably, a standing ovation.
Indeed, as Felder and other New York politicos describe him, Bloomberg the mayor has transformed himself into a politician whom the vast majority of New York Jews can get behind, even though he does not present himself as a typically “Jewish” politician. It’s a characteristic that some say could prove beneficial if the mayor — who derides himself as “a short, Jewish billionaire from New York” — launches the independent bid for the White House that is suggested by his recent decision to quit the Republican Party.
“Bloomberg has never run away from who he is, but he’s not running around waving a lulav, and he’s not holding up a mezuza all day long,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant who worked for Bloomberg’s opponent in 2001, Mark Green. “And why should he? It’s part of his identity, but it’s not way up front, nor is anything else.”
Long before Bloomberg, 65, built his eponymous financial services empire or took the reins of New York City, he was an Eagle Scout growing up in Medford, Mass. He attended Temple Shalom, a Conservative congregation, with his family. Today he lives on New York City’s Upper East Side and attends Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El, a Reform synagogue, on the High Holy Days. But in Bloomberg’s public life, his Jewish identity has hardly been overriding. As a philanthropist, he has donated to Jewish institutions — before taking office he was a trustee of The Jewish Museum — but has focused the bulk of his giving on arts, health and educational causes, including his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University.
“Mike Bloomberg is proud of being a Jew, but he’s a ‘WASH’ - a white, Anglo-Saxon Hebrew,” said Douglas Muzzio, professor of public affairs at CUNY’s Baruch College. “Given his class and his secularity, he is a Jew, but in an ethnic and cultural sense.”
One Republican operative said that both Pataki and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani had more Jewish connections and a greater ease with Jewish audiences than Bloomberg did when he first ran for mayor.
“I would say if you looked at three guys — Pataki, Giuliani and Bloomberg — you would probably see that Bloomberg had the least connection to the Jewish community outside his Upper East Side orbit,” he said.
In office, however, Bloomberg’s popularity has climbed steadily among Jewish voters across the city. In 2001, Bloomberg and Mark Green — another liberal Jew hailing from the Upper East Side — split the Jewish vote about evenly, with 49% each, according to one exit poll. Michael Fragin, Bloomberg’s former Jewish liaison, estimates that in 2005 the mayor might have won as much as 80% of the Jewish vote citywide. In interviews with the Forward, a half-dozen Jewish officials with heavily Jewish districts in the city described their constituents as happy with Bloomberg’s job as mayor.
“In terms of issues, he tracks the traditional big-city Jewish politician: social welfare, abortion, gun control and immigration,” said Democratic consultant Norm Adler.
Bloomberg seems to have carved out an identity different from other Jewish politicians in New York City.
“Chuck Schumer will come to a Jewish Orthodox event and start telling people how his great-grandfather came from some town in Europe,” Felder said. “I have never heard Bloomberg do anything of the sort.”
Although Bloomberg has spoken out strongly against terrorism in Israel and visited the Holy Land several times while serving as mayor, his popularity among Jews has not stemmed from high-profile gestures of solidarity. Whereas Giuliani is legendary for ejecting Yasser Arafat from a concert at Lincoln Center in 1995, Bloomberg opposed a City Council resolution to close the New York offices of the Palestine Liberation Organization during his first months as mayor. In 2002, the mayor stood behind a controversial appointment to the city’s Human Rights Commission, Omar Mohammedi, even as Democratic officials and Jewish groups such as the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League called for Mohammedi’s ouster. More recently, he has met with London Mayor Ken Livingstone to discuss environmental policy and other matters, despite Livingstone’s history of making controversial statements offensive to some in Britain’s Jewish community.
Remarkably, Bloomberg seems to have acquired the kind of Teflon coating rarely enjoyed by politicians dealing with such sticky issues.
“It seems like once he makes up his mind on something, it’s very difficult for him to change, and rarely does that happen,” said New York Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, who represents the Riverdale section of the Bronx. “That’s an interesting phenomenon. He has very high poll ratings and yet on many issues, people might disagree with him.”
One of the mayor’s opponents on the Mohammedi issue, New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, said he had gotten over the incident, which he called “a little blip.”
The bigger picture, Hikind said, is that in his eyes, Bloomberg is a “mensch” who is “straightforward and honest.” Once one of Giuliani’s earliest Democratic backers, Hikind said he “would look very, very seriously” at endorsing a presidential run by Bloomberg.
In Felder’s district, the mayor has helped address a variety of concerns, including finding space for a new garage for Hatzolah volunteer ambulances and pushing forward a new affordable housing project. But Felder said he believed that Bloomberg’s biggest strength has been smoothing racial tensions and reaching out to the city’s myriad ethnic communities.
Indeed, if Bloomberg’s heritage has left any fingerprints on his governing, it may be in his engagement with other ethnic minorities. According to Felder, when the mayor does trot out an anecdote from his past, it is often one about his father, who “wasn’t a well-to-do man, but … used to give to organizations that were combating racism.”
Lloyd Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, echoed these sentiments. Williams said he perceives the mayor as even-handed when dealing with the concerns and needs of the city’s different ethnic and racial communities.
“It’s very clear that he’s Jewish,” Williams said, “but he doesn’t throw it in your face.”