Philadelphia Jews Aren’t Changing Their Votes

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 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.

A video produced by JEVS depicts “The New Face of Unemployment,” starring Jewish professionals not unlike Levine and Mindlin. Most are middle-aged and have a full and successful career behind them, but are suddenly unemployed and have little experience in looking for a job or in adjusting to changes in career and lifestyle. Many Jewish job seekers, Kardon said, are seniors looking for a way back to work after learning that their retirement income is not sufficient.

At the other end of the spectrum are the young families, also struggling to enter a turbulent job market and stay in it.

At the early evening hours, the Klein Branch Jewish Community Center in Northeast Philadelphia is bustling with parents picking up children from after-school programs. In decorated classrooms on the center’s ground floor, children attend preschool programs as well as after-school classes, mostly for those whose parents are still at work.

One mother, asked not to be named, said she chose the JCC for her two children, ages 3 and 5, because of the importance she sees in Jewish education — and because of the JCC’S assistance to struggling families like hers. Another Jewish day school asked for $18,000 a year in tuition for her oldest, but at the JCC “they helped a lot.” She grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, and the recent economic downturn has hit her husband’s business and the family’s credit score, forcing the family to move in with relatives for a while. But she does not expect the government to do more to help families like hers get over the rough patch.

Until four years ago, there were no children attending child care or education programs at the Klein Branch JCC on government support. Now, said Andre Krug, the JCC’s president and CEO, half of those in after-school programs and one-third of the children in preschool are recipients of government support programs.

At dusk, as families hustle their children home, dozens of Russian-speaking Jews take over the community center. The Northeast was once the hub for Russian immigrants coming to Philadelphia — local members of the community joke that it was viewed as a “step up” from Brooklyn for those who could afford it — and is still home to many Russian-speaking seniors. Now the neighborhood is predominantly Asian, as younger Jews have moved to the suburbs, although many still send their children to Russian-language programs at the old neighborhood’s JCC.

Most moved to Montgomery and Bucks counties; synagogues, community centers and senior homes followed. According to the 2009 Jewish population survey, the two smaller counties of Chester and Delaware have had the fastest-growing Jewish population, whereas the city of Philadelphia is consistently losing Jewish residents, now serving as home to only 38% of the area’s Jews.

The economic downturn, however, did not stop at the city limits.

Recently, a food pantry opened in Ardmore, on the suburban Main Line, known for having a large Jewish population. “When people think of poverty in Philadelphia, they think of neighborhoods such as the Northeast, or South Philly, but we’ve been seeing people from [middle-class neighborhoods such as] Wynnewood, Elkins Park and Havertown,” said Joanne Lipper, co-director of adult and senior services at the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia.

The Jewish community’s food pantries are now operating at full speed, serving more residents than before, with fewer available resources. Sandy Titleman, 57, from Center City, lost her job three years ago and for the past two years has relied on food charities. She visits the food pantry located at the office of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia every second week and the Jewish Relief Agency pantry once a month. At times she also goes to church-operated food charities, “something I thought I’d never have to do.”

A lifelong Democrat, recent hardship did not influence Titleman’s political convictions. She believes that Obama has done a lot to improve the economy “given the mess he walked into,” and she takes offense at Romney’s suggestions that those relying on welfare see themselves as victims.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, employment status does not have a distinct impact on political voting patterns. Historically, the only noticeable change is that turnout among the unemployed tends to be lower than in the general population, although the high participation of Jewish voters in elections would offset any such effect in the community.

In the Jewish community, the current economic hardship entails a unique problem: Jews in need, especially those coming from the middle class who had never faced economic difficulties in the past, are averse to enrolling in government entitlement programs.

“There is a stigma in the Jewish community against being on welfare,” said Brian Gralnick, director of the federation’s center for social responsibility. As a result, Jews in need rely more on communal programs, which are already underfunded, instead of utilizing government programs catered to their needs.

“We always thought we’d be the first to give and the last that will actually need for ourselves,” Titleman said.

Being first to give is also harder in a shrinking economy. The Jewish federation has seen a significant drop in public support, with donations down to $24 million last year from $34 million in 2010. In addition, federal and state programs have been cut, making it even harder to provide services.

“The needs are growing, and at the same time there is a shredding of the state safety net,” Gralnick said. The Jewish Family and Children’s Service used to provide assistance of up $1,500 a year for a family. Now it is down to $750, hardly enough for a family to pay one month’s rent.

The only money that seems to come into Pennsylvania these days is spent on campaign ads. According to recent data, Obama’s campaign spent nearly $5 million of its own money and $3 million of super PAC funds to run ads in the state, mostly talking about job creation and helping small businesses. Romney has avoided direct spending, but super PACs supporting him poured $10.5 million into buying ads aimed at convincing voters in the state to vote Republican.

Contact Nathan Guttman at


Nathan Guttman

Nathan Guttman

Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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