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New Hampshire Jews weigh in

Leaders of Dartmouth College's AIPAC group, pictured, are working to register pro-Israel students to vote. (Matthew E. Berger)

Leaders of Dartmouth College’s AIPAC group, pictured, are working to register pro-Israel students to vote. (Matthew E. Berger)

MANCHESTER, N.H., Dec. 2 (JTA) — In an empty room where a small party for the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union is about to be held, Hilda Fleisher stands out. It may be her bright pink turtleneck sweater, or the fact that the 72-year-old is wearing braces on her lower teeth. Or it may be the small pin that reads “Dean for America” on the collar of her fleece vest. When asked why she is supporting Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, Fleisher’s remark stands out, too. “I just sorta oozed into it,” she says. Fleisher, a lawyer and art collector in Manchester, says she did not choose to support Dean because he spent a night at her house, although he did. “He cleaned the bathroom,” Fleisher recalls of her houseguest. “He made his bed.” The reason she chose Dean, the front-runner in New Hampshire polls, is because she thinks he can defeat President Bush next year, and that’s her top priority. Tough words from a former Republican. New Hampshire Jews look very different in real life than they do on paper. While the Jewish community of New Hampshire makes up proportionately one of the largest Jewish factions of registered Republicans in the country, the Jews here actually tend to vote Democratic in national races. And this trend appears likely to intensify this election season. There is a large number of Jews here who, like Fleisher, are frustrated with President Bush and are seeking new leadership. People in this state understand the influence they have over the national agenda by hosting the country’s first primary, which this election season is set for Jan. 27, 2004. Like their non-Jewish neighbors, many Jews here reach out to the candidates, inviting them to forums and seeking face time with them in order to lend their support and boost their voting numbers. Many of them remain undecided, uninterested in the nine Democratic hopefuls who make frequent stops to their schools, synagogues, shopping centers and neighbors’ homes, even as they express a strong desire to replace Bush. The only Democratic candidate who seems to have sparked any interest among Jews here is Dean. That’s in keeping with polls of voters up and down the state. According to the latest state polls, conducted last month by the American Research Group, Dean has 38 percent support in New Hampshire, with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) second with 17 percent. No other candidate breaks double digits. Twenty-one percent of those surveyed said they were undecided. Many in the Jewish community here say that Jews do not vote as a bloc and do not participate in campaign events and forums specifically as members of the Jewish community. Instead, they say, the Jews here, numbering 10,000, less than 1 percent of the state’s total population of 1.2 million, are committed to their role as voters in the nation’s first primary. For many, the first step will be changing their registration. David Stahl, a Manchester political observer who has been active in the Jewish community, says Jews in New Hampshire traditionally have registered as Republicans in order to have greater influence on elections for state and national offices. “Obviously, Jews have always tried to be close to seats of power,” says Stahl, drinking coffee in a small pizza shop in Manchester, as campaign ads flickered on the television over his shoulder. “The voting habits are largely Democratic, the registrations are largely Republican.” Stahl, 77, changed his own registration last month to independent so he could participate in the Democratic primary. In New Hampshire, registered independents can vote in either primary. It was only the second time in his life that he had moved from the Republican Party. The first was to support a friend running for the Democratic nomination for an open seat in the House of Representatives. Still, there are some Republicans who intend to stick with their party. Mark Gilman, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Manchester, describes his politics on the Middle East as “somewhere to the right of Ariel Sharon.” He says that he is seeing more young New Hampshire Jews embrace the Republican Party and Bush’s stance on Israel. “A lot of my social peers applaud his guts to try and do what he’s doing,” said Gilman, 44. He said these younger, more conservative Jews may be less known to the community because they are likely transplants who came to New Hampshire in recent years because of the growth of the technology industry, and many of them are unaffiliated with a synagogue and may have intermarried. Gilman said many of the Jewish Democrats backing candidates either are ambivalent on Israel or believe their candidate will take a more pro-Israel stand later on in the campaign season. But not all Israel supporters are voting Republican. Up north in Hanover, home of Dartmouth University, leaders of the Dartmouth Israel Public Awareness Committee are working to register students in New Hampshire to elect a Democratic nominee who is pro-Israel. They will hold a voter registration drive Jan. 7 so that students from other states can become New Hampshire citizens and vote. Adam Michaelson, a sophomore from Oceanside, N.Y., and his peers say that the interest in politics on campus has multiplied exponentially in this primary season, and that their campus group is working to collaborate with supporters of various campaigns to encourage a pro-Israel message. “The campaigns have helped the pro-Israel cause,” he says, sitting in a small classroom inside Dartmouth’s student center. “It’s an issue campaigns have to talk about and those individuals in campaigns have to be knowledgeable on.” Michaelson and other leaders of the Israel campus group are supporting Dean. They say that his Middle East policy is important, but not the deciding factor. “It’s a requirement that they have a good stance on Israel, but most of them do, so the other stuff makes the difference,” says Henry Tarmy, a sophomore from Putney, Vt. At Temple Adath Yeshurun in Manchester, Robert Feins, a physician from nearby Bedford, waits for his child to be let out of Hebrew school. His criteria for a Democratic candidate is simple: the main thing is it’s not Bush. “The Democrats could nominate Bozo the Clown — and they probably will — and I will vote for him,” Feins says. Another parent, Susan Grodman, who is a consultant in Manchester, says many Jews are praising Bush’s pro-Israel sentiments, but that the president “stands for the opposite of everything else I believe in.” Still, she says, “None of the Democratic candidates have jumped out at me as one I want to vote for.” Marcy Donham, a 30-year-old mother of two in Bedford, says she didn’t even know that Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) was on the ballot. But when she learned, she says, “We’ll go for the Jewish person.” “I think there should be a Jewish person,” Donham says as her child played on the floor in the synagogue’s foyer. “There never has been, and I think it would be a wonderful thing to have someone of our faith be president.” But Bob Shane, a Lieberman liaison to the Jewish community in New Hampshire, concedes that Donham is a rarity. Shane says that if Lieberman were against the war in Iraq, Jews “would be 100 percent behind him.” But his support of the war has hurt his support among Jews in the Northeast. Shane agrees with the consensus that many in the New Hampshire Jewish community are backing Dean. Fleisher says she’s supporting Dean, mostly because she doesn’t like Kerry and is mad at Lieberman. “He brought religion into it,” she says of Lieberman. “All I want is separation of church and state and here is one of our own playing that . . . game.”