In a bid to draft the age-old folkways of Judaism into the service of modern politics, the Bush-Cheney campaign is asking Orthodox Jews to use their network of communal and familial ties to get out the vote for President Bush.
Tevi Troy, an Orthodox Jew who served as Bush’s White House liaison to the Jewish community and is now working for the campaign, made one such pitch this week during the Republican convention.
“We’re a community that’s tightly knit,” said Troy during a gathering of some 200 Orthodox rabbis and communal leaders Tuesday at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. “Even if we’re not in the so-called battleground states, we know people in these communities, in Detroit, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Cleveland. Talk to those people.”
Troy’s plea kicked off a spate of events Tuesday in which leading Republican lawmakers sought to score points for Bush among the Jewish community’s most religiously conservative members. The idea was to highlight the president’s Christian faith and his religiously based positions and programs, such as his so-called faith-based initiative and his opposition to abortion and gay marriage. The strategy has two prongs: to show that Bush supports traditional Jewish values, but also that he is willing to support Orthodox Jewish social services in the most tangible way — with money.
The gambit fits into a larger, controversial Bush strategy of organizing conservative churches and synagogues for the president’s re-election effort. Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove, often has said that some 4 million Evangelical Christians failed to vote in 2000, causing Bush to lose the popular vote. The effort has met opprobrium from some church-state separationists and pastors, who worry that the effort could endanger the tax-exempt status of houses of worship.
Coming after a recent Democratic poll showed that Bush’s support among Jews remains essentially the same as it was in 2000, the Orthodox event also was a tacit acknowledge-
ment that Bush has gained little traction among the broader population of 5.2 million American Jews, a heavily Democratic group of which Orthodox Jews comprise 8%.
Republican activist Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a one-time aide to New York Governor George Pataki, conceded the accuracy of the recent poll, commissioned by the National Jewish Democratic Council, which showed that 75% of American Jews would vote for Kerry.
“The problem is not the candidate. The problem is the Jews. The Jews don’t vote their interests,” lamented Wiesenfeld, faulting his liberal co-religionists for a lack of focus on what he termed “innately Jewish” issues such as Israel and terrorism.
To help motivate whatever Jews might be willing to support Bush, Troy urged the assembled rabbis at the Waldorf Astoria to use a booklet published by the White House’s Office of Public Liaison. He told the audience that the booklet, titled “President George W. Bush: A Friend of the American Jewish Community,” could be used to “register pro-Bush voters,” get them to the polls and convince them to write letters to the editor. Copies of the taxpayer-funded booklet were available on each chair.
At the Waldorf session, Tim Goeglein of the White House Office of Public Liaison began his remarks with verses from Psalm 121, while Troy noted that it is the Jewish month of Elul, a traditional time of repentance. Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas addressed the assembled Jews several times as if they were the living embodiment of the people of the Bible. “I was raised on your words,” he said, later adding: “You brought the word of God to people and a world that didn’t know it…. We want you in the Republican Party…. We want you to say, ‘The Republican Party reflects our values more than the Democratic Party does.’”
Later on Tuesday, two Republican senators, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Norm Coleman of Minnesota, traveled to the Orthodox Brooklyn enclave of Boro Park to tour a Jewish social-service installation and meet with rabbinical leaders of Agudath Israel of America’s Council of Torah Sages.
“The president asked me to speak on the faith-based initiatives [at the convention], and I will be thinking about this moment,” Santorum said at Ohel, a facility for troubled youth.
The White House is heavily touting its faith-based initiative among Jews, even though many mainstream Jewish organizations object to it on church-state grounds and Democrats point out that hardly any Jewish institutions have qualified for the funding. To counter the Democratic sally, Republicans have seized on an August 23 missive to Jewish communal leaders, from the president’s liaison to the Jewish community, Noam Neusner, which offered details about almost $7 million in faith-based grants to Jewish-led social work agencies in New York, New Jersey, California and New Mexico. Among the agencies was New York’s Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which won a $525,645 grant this year from the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Jewish Renaissance Medical Center, Perth Amboy, N.J., which collected $1.7 million.
In response to the White House promotional effort, the assistant executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, David Harris, said that the administration support for Jewish projects “is still a drop in the bucket.”
“But that’s not the point,” Harris added. “The point is that the excessive mixing of government and faith is bad for government and bad for religion in America. This has been the core complaint of the organized Jewish community since 1996, when then-Senator Ashcroft introduced the scheme.”
Government reports say that $89 billion is eligible for distribution through the administration’s faith-based arms, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks the grants.
Like any big-government program, the faith-based initiative has stoked some good will. “President Bush was truly shocked to learn that Met Council had been denied opportunities to serve needy people because we had ‘Jewish’ in our name,” said the executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, William Rapfogel, a Democrat. “The President recognized an injustice, said he would end it and kept his word. Previous administrations of both parties allowed it to stand, so George W. Bush deserves credit and our gratitude for doing the right thing.”
Perhaps even more galvanizing among Orthodox supporters than Bush’s faith-based program, however, are GOP evocations of religious faith. Brownback’s sentiments garnered a rousing reception with the assemblage at the Waldorf, which included rabbis from most Hasidic sects, the non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox world and a sprinkling of Modern Orthodox types, with about half-a-dozen women.
“Our support [for Bush] goes beyond Israel,” said Rabbi Aryeh Spero of Beit Hadassah Synagogue of Great Neck, N.Y., adding: “Many people are against gay marriage and partial-birth abortion and agree with the moral climate he represents.” Spero estimated that 80% of his congregation would vote for the incumbent.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, the chancellor and president emeritus of Yeshiva University, said he was supporting Bush because “one of the greatest principles of Judaism is gratitude, hakarat hatov. For us not to express that opinion is a serious mistake. On the major things, on Israel and the war on terror, on that alone, he has my vote.”
The director of the Institute for Public Affairs of Orthodox Union, Nathan Diament, called the Waldorf gathering “the first Orthodox Jewish outreach event done by either party,” saying: “I would hope one day the Democratic Party would do the same.”
The Orthodox-centric strategy on display in New York extended even to the Republican Jewish Coalition, a bastion of moderate, non-Orthodox Jews that often holds events with nonkosher catered food. The food at its convention-related events was kosher. Head gear at the events showed they were heavily attended by Orthodox Jews.
Some Orthodox Jewish communal leaders, however, disputed the notion that the majority of their community would vote for Bush.
“I suspect John Kerry’s leadership role on such issues as standing up to Saudi oil blackmail and safeguarding the rights of Sabbath observers would put an effective damper on the quadrennial fantasy of mass Jewish conversion to the Republican cause,” said David Luchins, a board member of the Orthodox Union and former aide to the late Democratic senator, New York’s Pat Moynihan.
Luchins, who often crossed lines to back Republicans — he was a founder of Democrats for Nixon — noted that the last four Republican incumbents, with the exception of the elder Bush, garnered more than 30% of the total Jewish vote and as much as half the Orthodox vote. “In their wildest dreams,” he added, Republican activists do not expect that Bush will match those totals.