Pro-obama ‘schlep’ to Fla. Puts Focus on Jewish Seniors, Question of Race

Fred Wolff is pretty explicit in laying out the reason why he won’t support Barack Obama on Nov. 4.

A survivor of the Dachau concentration camp who came to the United States as a teenager, Wolff told JTA he typically favors Republican candidates. This year he would have preferred former governors Mike Huckabee of Arkansas or Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.

But despite his misgivings about John McCain, the Republican nominee, Wolff said there’s one reason he would never consider supporting Obama.

“I think that many of the blacks — I was going to say shvartzes, but I’ll say blacks — many of the blacks are anti-Semitic,” Wolff said. “I’m not going to vote for the black guy. No, never. I don’t want him. I don’t like the crowd that surrounds him. They may be quiet right now, and they may be even hiding in the bushes. But you wait, if he wins, they’re going to come out.”

While Obama has labored for months to beat back false claims that he is a Muslim and soft on Israel, the talk as the election heads into its final weeks has focused on the one aspect of the Democrat’s biography he is powerless to change: his skin color. And with polls showing Obama lagging in Jewish support behind earlier Democratic presidential candidates, concern among some of his supporters has grown that older Jewish voters, clustered in critical swing states and besieged by advertising stoking concerns about his position on Jewish issues, could tip the balance to McCain.

It was precisely this worry that led a new pro-Obama group, JewsVote.org, to urge young Jews to visit Florida over Columbus Day weekend to lobby their grandparents on Obama’s behalf. The effort, known as “The Great Schlep,” received a huge boost last month from foul-mouthed comedian Sarah Silverman, who appeared in an Internet video touting the Schlep that has been viewed more than 7 million times.

Following in the footsteps of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” and several coventional media outlets, Silverman painted older Jewish Floridians as balking at backing Obama because of his race.

The data suggest that such concerns might be overblown.

A recent survey by the American Jewish Committee found that Obama’s support was greater among older Jews than younger ones, a finding that some observers have said is too unbelievable to be true. On the ground in Florida, many grandparents of “schleppers” told JTA that they were leaning toward the Democratic candidate anyway, even before their grandchildren paid them an unexpected — if highly appreciated — visit.

“I think that elders are getting a bad rap with the assumption that they are going to allow racism to cloud their judgment about what really is the best choice for our country and our interest in being advocates for Israel and the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Dayle Friedman, who directs a center for Jewish aging at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia and is a vice chair of Rabbis for Obama. “My experience with elders is that they are far more open minded than people give them credit for.”

Several surveys of American Jews have shown Obama hovering at around 60 percent, about 10 points below where John Kerry was polling at a similar point in the presidential race four years ago.

“Over the years, there’s been some slippage in the numbers in terms of support for the Democrats,” said Ari Wallach, the co-founder of JewsVote and its parent organization, the Jewish Council for Education and Research.

The Great Schlep is “a way of ensuring that that does not continue, not only down here in Florida but across the country,” he said.

The Obama campaign, which drew a small army of Jewish volunteers to Florida thanks to the Silverman video, dismissed the sluggish poll numbers and expressed confidence that Obama would top Kerry’s figure of 76 percent of Jewish support.

“We don’t have a Jewish problem, the Republicans have an election problem,” Halie Soifer, the campaign’s Jewish vote director in Florida, told a group of Jewish volunteers from across the country on Oct. 10.

Soifer said McCain’s dip in the polls is giving Republicans nightmares, prompting them to hurl every slur imaginable in an effort to reverse the decline. And while she acknowledged that race may play a role in the minds of the Jewish voters she has targeted, insinuations about Obama’s background are being heard less and less.

“We are seeing a surge in support,” Soifer said. “I go to condos where I used to go a few months ago. And there was skepticism at that time. They didn’t know enough about Senator Obama. And now people just want to know how they can help.”

Among those former skeptics are Kenny and Selma Furst, lifelong Democrats and residents of one of the mythic “condos” and retirement communities that dot the South Florida landscape. Selma Furst had heard all the rumors about Obama’s religion and his stance on Israel, but there was one thing that really made her uncomfortable.

“If I may say the color wasn’t what I really wanted,” said Selma Furst. “And I just thought that no, I don’t think he’s going to be good. And I wasn’t too crazy about his wife.”

The Fursts’ grandchildren are fervent Obama supporters, and through e-mails and phone calls they were eventually able to sway their grandparents. So much so that Furst organized a Sunday afternoon meeting at their retirement community in Tamarac so their grandson, schlepper Mike Bender from Los Angeles, could address their friends.

By the end of Bender’s Oct. 12 speech, the 100 or so elderly voters were chanting “Yes, we can,” the unofficial slogan of the Obama campaign.

But even before hearing Bender’s pitch, the bulk of the crowd appeared to be solidly backing Obama. Several said that if Jewish voters had any fears about Obama, they were trumped by concerns about McCain’s choice of running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

“I wouldn’t vote for Sarah Palin if I didn’t vote at all,” said Estelle Zucker, a resident of Kings Point in Tamarac. “I think McCain made a big mistake by taking her.”

A lifelong Democrat, Zucker confessed to being on the fence in this election for the first time in her life. Obama’s “friends,” Zucker said, are anti-Semitic. She also worries about his position on Iran and Israel.

“That’s why I can’t go full-heartedly into this election, but I definitely will not vote for McCain,” Zucker said. “I don’t like Sarah Palin. She could be very nice — I like nice ladies — but I don’t like what she stands for.”

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