America Decides 2004 Among Orthodox, Republicans Sense They Have Natural Allies

There’s a standard pitch that Republicans make to a Jewish audience, and it usually centers around the support Israel has received from the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress. But put Republicans in front of a group of Orthodox Jews, and the discussion becomes more intimate.

“You represent a set of views and values that are beautiful, that are courageous and that are right for mankind,” Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) told Orthodox leaders at a Bush/Cheney meeting for observant Jews Tuesday. “We want you as part of this party.”

While the Bush administration and re-election campaign have been focused on getting Jews, seen as a traditionally Democratic voting bloc, to consider supporting President Bush this November, they think longer term when they talk to the Orthodox community.

Sensing that Orthodox Jews may share more values with Christian conservatives than with less observant Jews, Republican strate! gists think they can get more Orthodox voters to actively support Republicans, both this November and in the future.

That would mean more than just votes: Being able to showcase men with yarmulkes and side-locks would help bolster the Republicans’ argument that they’re a party of diversity.

“We are a minority within a minority,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs. “But within recent years the Orthodox community, on many fronts, has become much more active and engaged players within the political arena, and we ought to be paid attention too.”

The fact that Tuesday’s campaign event was geared toward Orthodox Jews, and not the Jewish population at large, showed that a different message is being sent to the religious community.

To be sure, the conversation touched on Israel, as well as other priorities in the Middle East. Brownback even suggested that now that Bush has changed the U.S. position on Israel’s West Bank! settlements, he should take the issue of Jerusalem off the table by d eclaring that it belongs only to Israel.

But talk also focused on preventing the legalization of gay marriage and preserving the preciousness of all life, including the unborn. Those subjects are strictly taboo in meetings with non-Orthodox Jews because most Jewish voters disagree with the Republicans on those topics.

Two other Republican senators, Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), toured an Orthodox social service institution in the fervently Orthodox neighborhood of Boro Park, Brooklyn, later Tuesday, touting their support for faith-based initiatives. While the idea of giving federal funds to faith-based groups for social service programming is controversial in the Jewish community, many Orthodox Jewish leaders embrace the program, thinking it may aid their institutions.

Evident throughout the events was the notion that both religious Jews and Republicans are people of morals.

“We are not perfect by any means, and we still get things wrong,! but we more represent the values you stand for than the Democratic Party does,” said Brownback, himself a religious conservative. “I hope you come in, and you are welcome.”

The timing seems to be right for the Republican Party to tout itself to the Orthodox community.

The Republicans’ strong support for Israel is important to the outreach, as is the idea that Bush’s frequent comments about his own strong religious faith have endeared him to religious Jews.

“This is an administration that appreciates faith, and it comes from the top down,” said Tevi Troy, a former Jewish liaison in the White House who now works as a policy advisor in the re-election campaign.

Troy, an observant Jew himself, was concerned about moving to the campaign because he would be able to work only six days a week. But, he said, he found his peers welcoming of his Sabbath observance.

“He is a man of God, he is a man of principle, he is unapologetic about his faith as a still point fo! r him in this turning world,” said Tim Goeglein, deputy director of th e White House Office of Public Liaison, who is tasked with reaching out to religious conservatives.

The concerted effort to reach out to the Orthodox community has not always been there: Religious Jews traditionally were seen as more concerned about local politics, and as aligned with the Democratic Party.

The Orthodox also were seen as just another subset of the Jewish vote, which Republicans had all but dismissed as irretrievably Democratic.

In recent years Orthodox Jews have become more ingrained in American society, more affluent and more interested in national politics, and have been actively reaching out to Republicans. Now the GOP is reaching back, and viewing them as a separate voting bloc.

“We’re reaching out to all Jews,” Troy said. “But we recognize that certain communities are more comfortable with events that are just their events.”

The Democrats also seem to regard the Orthodox community as a distinct voting group. Cameron Kerry, brother of ! Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and his surrogate in the Jewish community, met with Orthodox leaders in New York last week.

David Luchins, an Orthodox community leader and former aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, said he believes Democrats still will enjoy large support in the Orthodox community because there are other issues on which Republicans and Orthodox Jews disagree. He cited stem cell research and gun control, two issues that Orthodox groups generally support but Republicans oppose.

“The hard Christian right scares the heebie-jeebies out of the Jews,” Luchins said. “As long as the Sam Brownbacks, who are wonderful on Israel, are burdened by the agenda of the Christian right, Jews will continue to support Democrats.”

He notes that the Republicans most popular in the Jewish community, such as former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, were socially liberal.

But Republicans seem c! ontent to focus on areas in which they are aligned with the devout Jew s. Vice President Dick Cheney even headlined a fund-raiser for the campaign in New York last October that was geared specifically toward devout Jews. Dietary laws were enforced.

Certainly, the crux of the effort is to increase votes for Bush in November. But having Bush supported by a group of Jews who are visibly recognizable representatives of their faith helps the party sell the message that it is diverse and inclusive, counterbalancing stereotypes about the GOP.

But Abba Cohen, Washington director of Agudath Israel of Washington, said the community is not content to be a visual prop for the Republicans.

“We’re smart people,” Cohen said. “We know when people are trying to use us, and we know how to avoid being used.”

Orthodox Jews say they have trouble understanding why some of their peers remain Democrats, and think Republicans need to continue the work they have started.

“I think they are taking us seriously, but I don’t think they have an organized e! ffort to educate the Jewish community about the benefits of being a Republican,” said Karen Steele, an Orthodox Republican delegate from Washington, who asked Brownback, “Why are so many Jews members of the Democratic Party?”

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