America Decides 2004 in Pennsylvania, Undecided Jews Struggle with Key Election Decision

When Anne Richman traveled to New York City for her grandson’s wedding this summer, his friends could not understand why she hadn’t yet decided to vote for Sen. John Kerry for president. The 82-year-old promised them she would. But her other grandson, the one who served in the Israeli army, wants her to vote to re-elect President Bush. She said he “wouldn’t let up” with his assurances that Bush was best for the State of Israel.

Less than a month before the election, she’s still not sure what to do.

“I’ve been thinking, in all my years, I’ve never thought about it so much,” Richman said, sitting in the lobby of the Klein branch of the Jewish Community Centers in Philadelphia. “And I’m still undecided.”

Like many Jews in Pennsylvania and beyond, Richman is struggling with whom to support in this pivotal presidential election.

The Keystone State is considered an important swing state, with 21 electoral votes at stake. In 2000, the state went to the Democrats.

In interviews with several dozen individuals in Philadelphia and surrounding suburbs, many Jews, who make up 2.3 percent of the state’s population, say this is the hardest, and most important, choice they can remember.

Those that have not made up their minds seem to be struggling between the two candidates, supporting them on some issues they care about, finding them falling short on many others.

Jewish voters look at President Bush and see a man who has aided Israel and guided a war on terrorism. But he also has broken down the dividing line between church and state and has not supported many of their domestic policy priorities.

For his part, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts is in line with many Jews on domestic issues, such as abortion rights. But as terrorism continues to grip the United States and Israel, some Jewish voters question whether domestic issues are really the ones that matter this time around.

Indeed, Jews here are quick to rattle off the war against terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when asked which topics are influencing their vote.

These issues will likely tip the balance for the still undecided, but they also are most important for those who have made up their minds already.

Proponents of both candidates say they are focusing on global issues — including the U.S. war in Iraq — but are reaching very different conclusions. Some say Bush has effectively fought terrorism, and his push into Iraq was part of it. But others say Bush has not done enough, question the war in Iraq and are thus backing Kerry.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Alexander Chester has been spending a lot of time trying to swing fellow Jewish students to Kerry’s side.

Since he returned to campus last month, the 21-year-old Orthodox Jew has spent time helping to register students and, at the Hillel in particular, extolling the virtues of Kerry’s Israel policy.

“They need reassurance because they just don’t know enough about Kerry on Israel,” he said, looking a bit disheveled as he stood in the lobby of the school’s Hillel, having just returned from spending Sukkot with his family in Jerusalem.

Many of them want to vote for Kerry because of his take on domestic policies and other issues of importance to them, he said, but Israel has become a bellwether issue that Kerry has not yet passed.

But once he lays out his argument that Kerry is not only as good as Bush on Israel but better, many of them connect to the Democratic views their parents hold.

“They say, ‘Thank you, I can now vote for Kerry,’ ” he said.

But that sentiment is not universal at the school.

Take Eli Cohen, a Brooklynite with short cropped hair and the beginnings of a beard, dining outside in the Hillel’s sukkah.

Cohen, 19, said he doesn’t agree with Bush on many domestic issues, like the environment, but said those are low on his priority list. National security tops the list, and that’s why he supports the Iraq war and the current commander in chief.

Oblivious to the irony, Cohen said Iraq was the “lowest hanging fruit” in the global war on terrorism, and the Bush White House was justified in dealing with a problem that would eventually have required international intervention.

“Iraq was the most marketable war,” he said, suggesting Syria and Iran were other options. “We could not have things remain the way they were.”

Temple Beth Hillel Beth El, a local synagogue in the heavily contested Montgomery County suburbs of Philadelphia, last week hosted supporters of both candidates in an often combative discussion of the issues.

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, himself a Democrat, told attendees to support Bush for his pro-Israel and anti-terror stances, but to choose Democratic congressional candidates if they cared about domestic issues.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), no match for the passionate Koch, questioned Bush’s support of Israel because of his backing of the “road map” plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

But the divisions among Jews reached beyond the bimah. They were evident from within the crowd and throughout the area.

Richard Chaitt, a small business owner from Havertown, said he was supporting Bush because having Kerry, who has criticized the war in Iraq, would be akin “to leading a war with our tails between our legs.”

But as Chaitt explained his rationale, his friend in the next seat, who declined to give his name, sheepishly admitted he was a traditional Republican who was voting for Kerry,

“I believe Bush and his administration manipulated the facts and the evidence, in order to create a pretense for going to war,” he said. “It has cost the country an enormous amount of lives and dollars.”

Many others are quick to give Bush a pass for the current quagmire in Iraq.

“There have been mistakes made because no one can predict when they enter a war,” Elaine Smith, a retired librarian, said as she waited for her aerobics instructor to arrive at the nearby Kaiserman branch of the Jewish Community Centers.

She said she does not understand why so many Jews feel Kerry is the answer to their prayers.

“I’ve never heard Kerry in any way maintain that Israel is a beleaguered state surrounded by enemies,” she said. “I feel so strongly about Israel being protected.’

At Hymie’s Deli, just a short drive away, the image of Annabell Mogul, 80, sitting and eating her soup could easily be one of the dozens of caricatures that line the wall. Behind her thick, jet-black sunglasses are the eyes of a woman who still does not know how she will vote.

“I’m vacillating on the war,” she said as the main course, half sandwiches, is served to her and her friend.

“In some ways, it was very good. If someone had done that for the Jews, think of all the Jews that would have been saved,” she said, alluding to World War II.

But, she said, the economy has just gotten worse. She thinks both candidates will fight terrorism. Right now, she says, she thinks she will vote for Kerry.

Perhaps Susan Appel, a 42-year-old mother from Gladwyne, best summarized the thoughts of many when she said, “Who’s worse?”

She ordered a Reuben sandwich and Coke, and added: “I don’t know what to do this year. I’m just looking at who’s going to be more dangerous.”

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