Many American Jewish leaders may be able to talk about the first time they met Joe Biden – the guy has, after all, been a fixture in Washington for 44 years – but Rabbi Michael Beals’ story is a doozy: He met Biden at a shiva call.
In 2006, Biden was still a Democratic Senator from Delaware, and Beals was the newly-installed spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in that state’s largest city, Wilmington. A synagogue member named Sylvia Greenhouse had died at the age of 83, and her apartment was too small to fit the gathered mourners, so Beals was leading a service in the building’s laundry room, and in walked the state’s senior Senator.
Biden explained to the rabbi that in every election campaign since his first Senate run in 1972, Greenhouse, a retired DMV employee, had sent him donations of $18 – a number that in Judaism symbolizes life. So Biden was there to pay his respects.
“And nobody was covering it, nobody from the press, there wasn’t an assistant,” Beals recounted. “It’s just who he is.”
After Biden’s significant victories in South Carolina and across Super Tuesday primaries, former Mayor Mike Bloomberg of New York dropped out of the Democratic presidential contest on Wednesday and, like Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Mayor Pete Buttigieg before him, endorsed the former vice president. The race is thus largely narrowing to a two-person battle between Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the revolutionary who would be the first Jewish nominee of a major party, and Biden, who has been gaining support across the Jewish community because of his longstanding support of Jewish causes, his center-left politics, his empathy, and the belief that he is better positioned to beat President Trump.
“I think there’s going to be an overwhelming support for Joe Biden in the Jewish community,” said Susan Turnbull, a former vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and former chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
A Catholic ‘mensch’
While Jews only comprise about 2% of the American population, they are much more likely to vote and are vastly more likely to donate to Democratic presidential candidates than the general public. So their support could be felt in helping Biden replenish his campaign coffers – and in upcoming primaries on March 17 in four states with large Jewish populations: Florida, Illinois, Arizona and Ohio.
Unlike Sanders and Bloomberg, Biden does not have a dedicated Jewish liaison, and the campaign did not respond to a request for comment about their Jewish outreach plan.
Polls taken while the Democratic primary had more candidates indicated that Biden already had more support in the Jewish community than Sanders – and that was before many of Biden’s top rivals for Jewish affection quit the race and backed him.
A recent poll of American Jews from the Jewish Electorate Institute found that Biden performed only slightly better in head-to-head hypothetical matchups against Trump than Sanders did. But it also found that Biden’s approval rating, at 60%, was tied with Buttigieg’s for first place among the Democratic field, while Sanders landed in last place with only 52% approval (though still far above Trump’s 28%).
In the Forward’s analysis of Jewish campaign contributions made at the beginning of the campaign last summer, Biden also came in second place to Buttigieg in support from Jewish donors.
Some of that success has to do with personal familiarity. Ron Kampeas, the Washington bureau chief for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, joked last year that Jewish insiders are so used to Biden telling a story about meeting Golda Meir that they could create a drinking game. (Long story short: Meir told the young Sen. Biden that the Israeli army’s secret weapon was that “we have no place else to go.”)
And as is the case among African-American voters who helped propel his revival with a huge victory in South Carolina, Biden is also surely the recipient of warm feelings due to his connection to former President Barack Obama, who remains quite popular among Jewish Democrats.
“The Vice President of Barack Obama is still beloved by us,” said Aaron Keyak, the former executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
As Vice President, Biden hosted an annual pre-Rosh Hashanah party at his official residence, to which hundreds of local and national Jewish leaders were invited.
“You’d go there, and every single person in that room had a personal relationship with Joe,” Turnbull said. “Everybody did. And he knows that the Jewish community goes far beyond the issue of Israel.”
Indeed, while polling shows that Biden’s stance on Israel is shared by most American Jews — generally supportive of the Jewish state but critical of some of its policies towards the Palestinians – it also shows that they base their votes for American politicians on other things. The top issue, according to the Jewish Electoral Institute poll, is healthcare, and judging by which candidates had the highest Jewish approval – Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar – they are likely in favor of a more moderate approach than Sanders’ Medicare-for-All plan.
“You look at the most popular candidates in this poll — Biden Bloomberg, Klobuchar, Buttigieg – and they all coalesced around one of them: Biden,” Keyak said. “It seems to follow that Biden is going to be stronger among the Jewish community.”
Turnbull is one of those people who coalesced: She was a Buttigieg donor and volunteer who endorsed Biden after her top choice dropped out and did the same.
“The reason I am so easily with Joe, transferring from Pete, is that I believe Joe Biden wants to bring people together, not pit them against each other,” she said.
Beals made a similar point, saying that Biden is a “mensch,” a good person.
“He is so comfortable around Jewish people,” Beals said. “The type of Jewish people he’s comfortable with is the type of Jewish people I’d be comfortable with.
“Trump and Bloomberg are comfortable around Jewish people, but the type of people they would hang out with wouldn’t acknowledge that I’m Jewish, or are so wealthy that they’d think I’m inconsequential,” the rabbi continued. “For those of us who are not very wealthy, or not too far to the right or the left, Joe appeals to us. And the fact that he sometimes stumbles, it doesn’t show a lack of intelligence, it shows he’s human.”
Will Biden prioritize Jewish voters?
It remains to be seen whether Biden will hire a dedicated Jewish outreach staffer. At a Jewish community forum in Los Angeles last month, Biden was represented not by a campaign aide, as the other campaigns were, but by City Councilmember Paul Koretz. “I’m not a regular surrogate for Joe Biden,” Koretz said. “I just think he’s the right candidate for the right time.”
Until Biden’s South Carolina surge, his campaign was facing a cash crunch. “You can’t do outreach if your campaign is operating on fumes,” said former Rep. Shelley Berkeley of Nevada, who has endorsed Biden.
Berkeley served in Congress with Sanders. “I didn’t like him then, and I like him less now,” she said. “He is virulently anti-Semitic.”
To be sure, Sanders does have a strong and passionate Jewish support base, especially among young people. And the JEI poll found that most Jews view him favorably, though less so than Biden. The expected departure of Sen. Elizabeth Warren – the top choice among rabbis – could help him, both with Jews and in general, the way that Buttigieg and Klobuchar helped Biden. But Turnbull, the former DNC vice chair, was skeptical.
While caucusing and text banking for Buttigieg, she said, she found that people weren’t stuck in ideological “lanes” as much as pundits thought – a Warren supporter might have Biden as her second choice, or a Klobuchar supporter could also like Sanders. “They were voting for individuals based on their individual opinions of those candidates,” she said.
Biden has already laid the groundwork for a Jewish outreach strategy – he spoke by video at the AIPAC Policy Conference, he wrote an op-ed about anti-Semitism for JTA, and the ad that launched his campaign was focused on the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, noting the anti-Semitic nature of the “Jews will not replace us” chant.
Beals, the Delaware rabbi, said that Biden’s concerns about anti-Semitism, as well as Jewish issues more broadly, were deeply felt. Beals wrote a letter to Biden last year, urging him to keep going despite the pundits who had questioned his candidacy, which had not yet been officially announced. Beals said he received a hand-written response that began, “You are my rabbi and my friend.”
“Looking back on my time in public office I can say without fear of contradiction – the Jewish community in Delaware and around the nation has not only been the source of undying support, but the source of my public education,” Biden wrote. “I’ve had the great honor to meet and be mentored by so many remarkable women and men, from Golda to Elie. I am indebted to you and to the community in so many ways. You are familiar with the Talmudic saying, ‘What comes from the heart enters the heart.’ Your sentiments entered my heart. Keep the faith!”
Molly Boigon contributed reporting.