When Philadelphia-based Rabbi Leonard Gordon wanted to learn more about presidential contender Barack Obama in advance of Pennsylvania’s upcoming primary, he didn’t have to read a newspaper, turn on the television — or even leave his living room. Instead, Gordon invited over two colleagues and chatted with Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a major backer of the Illinois senator, during a private, hour-long meeting in the comfort of his own home.
“It left me with a feeling of having been heard and cared about,” Gordon told the Forward. “It was kind of a community-organizing conversation.”
As the Keystone state’s April 22 primary approaches, the rabbi’s meeting is indicative of the intimate, grass-roots approach that supporters of the Illinois senator are using to woo Jewish voters in the final primary battleground with a significant Jewish population. In recent days, both Obama and his Democratic rival, Senator Hillary Clinton, have worked to win support from Jews in Pennsylvania, with subtle but telling differences. While Clinton has dispatched Jewish allies to a couple of centralized Jewish-outreach events, Obama, emerging from last month’s bruising controversy over his former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has had a more informal and diffuse network of Jewish supporters making his case.
“This is an opportunity for many of us in the Pennsylvania community to reach out to our friends and neighbors and colleagues and fellow congregants and tell them what we think of this guy,” said Mark Altman, a Philadelphia lawyer who belongs to Obama’s national finance committee. “The Wright controversy gave people a politically correct way to ask the questions that have been there since [Obama] announced his candidacy.”
While Clinton has been projected to win Pennsylvania, home of many of the blue-collar and older voters shown to favor her in previous nominating contests, the New York senator’s lead has been tightening in recent weeks. A Rasmussen Reports telephone survey, released April 1, showed her leading Obama by just 5 percentage points, 47% to 42%, down from a 13-point lead found by Rasmussen in mid-March.
Out of an overall state population of 11 million, Pennsylvania’s Jewish community numbers roughly 300,000, with about 200,000 concentrated in Philadelphia and 50,000 in Pittsburgh. But despite the fact that Jews make up a relatively small slice of the state’s overall electorate, the community is mobilizing heavily in advance of the primary.
Most recently, a coalition of 60 Jewish supporters of Obama — including politicians, rabbis and community leaders — released an open letter backing the senator and commending him for his response to the controversy over Wright, who came under scrutiny last month when anti-American and anti-Israel statements he made from the pulpit at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ came to light.
We are standing “with Barack Obama because he is sensitive to the issues of the Jewish community and a stalwart supporter of Israel,” said the March 31 letter, which was circulated via e-mail. Its signatories included Rep. Josh Shapiro, deputy speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, as well as fellow Pennsylvania State Rep. Daylin Leach and a half-dozen rabbis.
According to one person close to the Obama campaign, more informal gatherings, of the type attended by Schakowsky, will be held in the coming days with Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida — who is slated to travel to Pittsburgh on April 6 for a community forum that will also feature Clinton backer Rep. Eliot Engel of New York — as well with Rep. Steve Rothman of New Jersey and, most likely, Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.
Meanwhile, Clinton dispatched senior policy adviser senior campaign adviser and Jewish liaison Ann Lewis, as well as the Orthodox Union’s Kashrus head, Rabbi Menachem Genack, to an April 1 lunch with the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, followed later that day by a larger meeting with Jewish leaders.
Jews “don’t have the luxury to decide if someone may be okay down the road,” Marcel Groen, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee, told attendees, according to a report filed by JTA. The event was also headlined by Pennsylvania Rep. Allyson Schwartz.
Clinton herself, in the meantime, gave a brief interview to Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent newspaper, during which she defended the Oslo peace efforts undertaken in the 1990s by then-president Bill Clinton. She also indicated a willingness to enter into limited talks with Hamas, if she were given the green light from Israel.
She did not miss the opportunity to criticize Obama’s relationship with Wright.
“”Given all we have heard, he would not have been my pastor,” Clinton reportedly told the Exponent in the March 27 interview. “We don’t have a choice when it comes to our relatives, but we do have a choice when it comes to churches or synagogues.”
While it remains to be seen if the Wright affair will affect Jewish voting in the Pennsylvania primary, several rabbis who spoke with the Forward said their congregations seemed split roughly evenly between Obama and Clinton supporters. Beyond the April nominating contest, Gordon, leader of the Germantown Jewish Centre, said he is seeing signs that some Jews, still uneasy with Obama, might consider voting for McCain if the Illinois senator wins the nomination.
“The conversation I’m having with a lot of people is the conversation about whether or not if Senator Obama is the candidate, they would then vote for McCain,” Gordon said. “That is a conversation I’m having a few times a week with people — people who have been spooked, people who have concerns.”