The Villages, Florida by the Forward

At The Villages retirement community, pro-Trump and pro-Biden Jews break friendships

Image by Ilene Prusher

When Rochelle Bosley Larson cruises the lanes of The Villages, the nation’s largest retirement community, in her golf cart festooned with a large “Biden 2020” flag, she elicits some happy honks, but even more often, a slew of curses and names she wouldn’t want her grandchildren to hear.

As newcomers, she and her husband had found what they thought was a good clique for “Nine and Dine,” in which friends meet once or twice a week to play a nine-hole course of golf followed by a meal on the town. But she was ostracized, she said, by women who didn’t like the Biden golf towel she had on her cart.

The Villages is marketed as “Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.” But Election 2020 has ruined a lot of friendships.

“I have lost friends over this, but I hope that when Biden wins, some of those relationships can be mended,” said Sara Branscome, looking out from her screened-in patio to an expansive golf course. “With one or two friends, we’re just taking a break until it’s over, because it’s too hard right now.”

Branscome, who was born and raised in Israel until moving to the US in her high school years, travels the Villages with a sign on her golf cart that reads “Vote for the Mensch.”

In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 election, Biden supporters report having their cars rammed, golf paths blocked, tires damaged, and lawns or driveways vandalized.

In the largely conservative, almost all-white community, where Fox News radio is piped from loudspeakers in the downtown squares and nearby pubs do a roaring business that could make you forget there’s a pandemic on, there is, said Larson, “an assumption of consensus.”

But this year, that consensus is shakier. Older voters in key swing states like Florida are looking less enthusiastic about Trump than they were in 2016, in large part due to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The average age at The Villages is approximately 71, and the residents are 98.3 percent white.

It’s difficult to get a true reading on what percentage of them are Jewish, but one lay leader who asked not to be named put it this way: “There are a lot more Jews around here than people think, but the way things are going right now, the political division is so worrying that no one, including us, wants to comment.”

It wasn’t always like this. Before people started dropping f-bombs at red lights and cussing at their neighbors’ political paraphernalia, life in the Villages had many elements that justified its “Friendliest Hometown” branding. The community began life as a mobile home park before the developers decided in the 1980s to reimagine it as a more upscale enclave offering a country club lifestyle at middle class prices. With its endless golf courses, social clubs, and three town squares with bars and free live music every evening, the vibe feels like Disney World for seniors.

“The joke is that it’s like going back to college, but with money in your pocket,” quipped Branscome, a retired Hebrew teacher who has become one of the Democrat party’s go-to spokeswoman here.

But it would be rare to find a university campus anywhere in America that’s this large, but also this white. In short, it’s possible to move through entire days in this sprawling 55-plus community that now stretches into three counties without ever seeing a resident with a black or brown face.

Larson, 67, said the lack of diversity reflects a lack of political diversity as well, something she hadn’t considered when she moved here with her husband about a year and-a-half ago from Charlottesville, Virginia.

She choked up when she recalled what she witnessed in Charlottesville a little over three years ago, when she went to join counter-protesters presenting a progressive opposition to the many far-right and white supremacisist groups that descended on the city to attend the “Unite the Right” rally.

A 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, was struck and killed by a far-right activist who drove into a crowd. “I have never seen a group of Nazis in my face like that before,” said Larson with tears in her eyes.

It was that dark moment, former Vice President Joe Biden has said, that impelled him to run for the president. Biden blasted Trump, who said there were “very fine people, on both sides” of the protests.

But other Jews at The Villages beg to differ. One of them is Lee Green, the regional director of an organization called Jews Choose Trump as well as president of Jewish Conservatives of the Villages.

Sitting on a bench outside the Trump campaign headquarters where she has spent many of her days in the run-up to Tuesday’s election, Green said it is “disappointing and infuriating when I see so many smart people falling for false narratives about Trump.”

In particular, she said, fellow Jews.

Green argues so frequently over what Trump said about Charlottesville that she has the full text of the statement he gave at the White House two days after the event saved in notes mode on her cell phone for easy retrieval.

“‘Racism is evil,’ Green read aloud from Trump’s statement. “‘And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.’’’

“See, he’s condemned racism hundreds of times, but they just keep trying to trap him with that question. It’s like asking someone whether they still beat their wife,” said Green.

As Green spoke, people filed in to visit campaign headquarters behind her, just off Brownwood Paddock Square. The square was built to look like an early 19th century Florida cattle town. Nightly live music kicking off for the evening was beginning to draw a crowd.

Visitors breezed into Trump Central to pick up signs, chat with volunteers, and take pseudo-selfies next to the life-size cut-outs of Trump and First Lady Melania Trump. The vast majority of them did not wear masks, and neither did the volunteers inside. A county mask mandate requires face covering in retail establishments, but most people here treat that as optional.

Trump held an Oct. 23 rally at The Villages attended by some 15,000 people, and critics have raised concerns that it, like other Trump rallies, could ultimately prove to be a super-spreader event for a particularly vulnerable age group. But Green, who plays lots of pickleball and is a fit 59, said she isn’t worried.

“Everyone I know who had it, it was a one-day wonder and they quarantined for two weeks and they were fine,” she said. Well, except for one person who was significantly overweight, she added, and should have known better and stayed home. “You don’t need to isolate yourself unless you’re unhealthy.”

Aside from smaller Jewish organizations and affinity groups, the Villages has two synagogues, the Reform Temple Shalom of Central Florida, and a Chabad. Green is affiliated with the latter, and Branscome is a member of the former. Leaders at both synagogues declined to comment, but various leaders spoke on background about their concerns.

“It’s a pretty crazy time around here,” said one synagogue official. “People are so polarized and we’re trying to make sure our shul is a space where everyone is welcome regardless of their views, so we cannot comment in any way.”

With Trump indicating that there’s no legitimate scenario in which he loses, Branscome said she expects things to remain tense here for months.

“If and when Biden wins,” she said, “I don’t think we can go out and parade around the community in our carts. Maybe we’ll wait for the inauguration. And then my question will be, what day do we start the healing?”

Author

Ilene Prusher

Ilene Prusher

Ilene Prusher is a journalist, author and lecturer. For nearly 20 years, she was foreign correspondent based in Jerusalem, Istanbul, Tokyo and Kabul. She joined the multimedia journalism faculty of Florida Atlantic University in 2015. Her most recent work has appeared in the Forward, TIME, FiveThirtyEight and the New York Times Book Review.

At The Villages retirement community, pro-Trump and pro-Biden Jews break friendships

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