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America Decides 2004 at Polling Stations Across U.s., Jews Cast Their Coveted Votes

In the leafy Philadelphia suburb of Bala Cynwyd, Amy Feldman stood in line, two young children clutching at her waist, ready to cast her vote for U.S. president. “I’m voting for George Bush because he’s stronger on Israel and that’s my No. 1 issue,” said the 35-year-old attorney on Tuesday.

But Feldman appeared to be a minority — not only among Jews interviewed at two polling stations in Montgomery County, Pa., one of the Philadelphia suburban regions deemed critical to winning the coveted 21 electoral votes in the swing state of Pennsylvania, but among Jewish voters across the United States.

Although Jews make up a small percentage of the overall U.S. vote, many of the states seen as crucial in the election — Florida and Ohio, as well as Pennsylvania — have significant Jewish populations.

Both campaigns spent unprecedented resources to target Jewish voters.

The president has made a concerted attempt to woo the Jewish vote, hoping to improve on the 19 percent he garnered against Al Gore in 2000. But despite his best efforts, Jews appeared once again to be overwhelmingly backing a Democrat, this time Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

For Efrat Aharonowich, a New Yorker in her mid-40s, deciding who to support was a tough call.

“I was considering Bush because of his fondness for Israel, but I thought that overall, for the direction of this country, I had to vote for Kerry,” said Aharonowich, who has dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship.

“On the one hand I want Bush for Israel, but on the other hand, as an American, I want Kerry to win. But if it is Bush, I think I’ll be happy.”

But for lifelong Democrat Jack Lichtenstein, the choice was easy.

“I didn’t need another Messiah. I didn’t need somebody who speaks to God to makes decisions about my country,” said the 81-year-old resident of New York’s Upper West Side, who pulled the lever for Kerry on Tuesday.

Bush’s strong belief in the role of religion in public life was only one of the issues that motivated many Jewish voters: the war in Iraq, Israel’s security and domestic concerns also ranked at the top of many voters’ priorities for the next president.

Meryl Gindin of suburban Philadelphia is a staunch Democrat and Kerry supporter.

“I’m opposed to the war and all the spending abroad; we need to focus our energy at home — on jobs and health care,” said the 46-year-old local Democratic Committeewoman as she stood watch over her local polling station, a home for seniors, as she does every election.

Several Jews interviewed said the future make-up of the U.S. Supreme Court was a factor in their decision. The next president is likely to be in the position to appoint some new justices to a court that has been virtually split on cases related to abortion rights and church-state separation, issues that many Jews care about.

Kerry will “protect our court system,” said Ariella Reback of the Pepper Pike suburb of Cleveland.

Cleveland stockbroker Don Jacobson, who described himself as “generally a conservative Republican,” decided about three months ago that he would cast his vote for Kerry.

“I can’t live with the way Bush is handling Iraq,” he said.

The Republicans had been seen as making inroads among Orthodox Jews, and anecdotal evidence in Milwaukee bore that out.

For Rabbi Moshe Gilden, a scholar at the Milwaukee Kollel Center for Jewish Studies, one important set of issues in the election was morality.

Speaking just after morning minyan at Congregation Beth Jehudah, the 28-year-old said he believes Bush “will uphold morality in this country” because the president opposes gay marriage and abortion.

Kerry has stated that he, too, opposes gay marriage, but he supports gay civil unions and opposes a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

But some Jewish voters in Milwaukee voted against Bush because of his conservative domestic views.

Jeff Alper, 48, an investment counselor in Milwaukee who voted the straight Democratic ticket, said that right now “the religious right is controlling the Republican Party. The constitution says there should be a separation between church and state.”

Both parties have worked assiduously to demonstrate their credentials on Israel — and there’s no doubt that for many Jewish voters, Israel is an important factor.

“It’s amazing that women” in my Hadassah chapter are “100 percent for Israel, and I don’t understand why they want to vote for Kerry,” said Lotte Retig, 81, who was reading the latest issue of Hadassah magazine as she waited in line to vote in an apartment building in New York City. “Bush has done everything for Israel.”

But many voters said they saw both candidates as being strong on Israel.

“I don’t think any major-party candidate in America is going to be bad for Israel, so that wasn’t a factor,” said Max Weisenfeld, a mid-40s resident of Maplewood, N.J.

“Besides, I don’t vote in a federal election based on Israel’s interests,” said Weisenfeld, echoing the sentiments expressed by many of those interviewed.

Taking time after they voted in New York, Eric Fisher, 34, who wears a kipah, and his wife Rachel Mesch, 33, said they resent the message that “Bush is supposed to be Israel’s best friend,” Mesch said.

Fisher added: “Saying that Bush is a friend of Israel and Kerry is not is like saying that Sharon is a friend of Israel and Rabin was not.”

With California safely in the Kerry column, many Jewish partisans from there on both sides of the aisle took off to neighboring states for last-minute missionary work.

Journalists Ivor and Sally Davis drove from their home in Ventura, Calif., to spend Sunday through Tuesday in Las Vegas and outlying communities in Nevada to stump for the Democrats.

In Las Vegas, the pro-Kerry Americans Coming Together had set up a huge tent, expecting about 700 out-of-state volunteers, but were swamped by 1,600, mostly from Southern California.

“We focused on the overcrowded, run-down apartments in the shadows of luxurious hotels, where the Latino and Asian residents worked as kitchen help and maids,” Ivor Davis said.

“Most of the registered people we talked to were obviously poor, so we talked about the importance of raising the minimum wage for low-paid workers,” he said.

“We made some headway, but a couple of families told us they would vote for Bush, because Kerry’s wife was ‘too bossy.’ Go figure.”

After the 2000 election debacle, in which confusing ballots were blamed for some of the problems among Jewish elderly in Florida, many states updated their outdated voting machines.

But in Rockville, Md., outside Washington, one Jewish voter said she handled the new touch-screen machines with ease. “It was no problem,” Yvonne Distenfeld said.

With the election so close, many observers had predicted the possibility of a deadlock, similar to the one that occurred four years ago.

For some Jewish voters, that only heightened their agita.

“I’ve had more anxiety about this election that I’ve had about any other,” said Sharee Newman, an active Democrat living in Omaha.

“I’m scared to death we’ll end up with disenfranchised voters, absentee ballots that never got to people who requested them, and military personnel who won’t get ballots, but are risking their lives for us.”

Despite the worries, Jews, as always, made sure they went to the polls — even those who did so with difficulty. Lillian Heller, a native of Paterson, N.J., currently living in West Palm Beach, Fla., fell and broke her hip and wrist 10 days before the election. She was rushed to the hospital and had immediate surgery.

After she regained consciousness, her first words to her daughter were: “Susan, you must bring my absentee ballot to the intensive care unit so I can vote for Kerry in time.”

(Contributing to this report were JTA Editor Lisa Hostein, JTA Managing Editor Michael Arnold, JTA Staff Writers Rachel Pomerance and Chanan Tigay and Online Editor Andy Neusner. Also contributing were the Cleveland Jewish News, the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, JTA correspondent Tom Tugend in Los Angeles, the Washington Jewish Week, the Jewish Press of Omaha and the New Jersey Jewish Standard. JTA Staff Writer Peter Ephross wrote the story.)

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