At Kol Nidre services this year, Rabbi Elan Adler of Baltimore stood before approximately 700 worshipers and described an Israel under siege — and how his congregants should support it. “I urge you tonight,” the rabbi of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue, said, “on this most sacred and solemn night of the year, to have Israel as your No. 1 priority when you elect a president this November. If we don’t care, who should care? If we don’t care, who will care? We have the vote, and we have the power to give Israel the kind of support she needs in the White House.”
In the super-heated political climate of 2004, it was bound to happen: A spiritual leader endorses a candidate from the pulpit, triggering complaints and raising questions about the role of sectarian, tax-exempt institutions in American society.
It also raised questions as to whether Israel should be the top consideration in voting for U.S. Jews.
Adler’s plea for President Bush also highlights the passion running through the Jewish community this election season.
As Election Day draws near, the debates continue to be carried on in synagogues, Internet chat rooms, businesses, schools and kitchens across the country, with millions echoing the points made during the campaign by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Bush.
For many in the Jewish community, it is more than mere conversation.
Mik Moore is a Reconstructionist Jew who lives in Manhattan. A sometime political consultant for local candidates in New York City elections, Moore said he felt he wanted to do more than simply cast his vote Nov. 2 in a state that likely would not be in real contention this presidential contest.
So he and a few friends came up with the idea of going to Florida to help Jewish retirees vote.
“If we worked inside New York for the election, it wasn’t going to have any significant effect,” says Moore, retelling a conversation he had at a Shabbat dinner not long ago on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“Somebody at the table said, ‘Why don’t we all go to Florida?’ “
Enter Operation Bubbe.
The goal of the project is to bring 100 volunteers to Florida’s Palm Beach and Broward counties starting Friday to help Jewish voters get to the polls on Election Day.
Many errant Jewish voters mistakenly cast their ballots in 2000 for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, according to reports, and Operation Bubbe is determined to prevent a repeat of a similar voting fiasco among Jewish grandmothers.
Moore said the effort is aimed at securing votes for Kerry; he believes most elderly Jews in Florida will vote for the Democratic candidate.
In some cases, people’s political choices are affecting their closest relationships.
Dr. Arthur Starr of Encino, Calif., admits that his adult son is “aghast” at his father’s decision to vote for Bush.
“He has threatened to disinherit me,” laughs the urologist.
Starr’s wife, Barbara, hasn’t gone quite as far, but she is as firm in her choice of Kerry as her husband is for the president’s re-election.
“Bush is the strongest presidential supporter of Israel we’ve ever had, and I still don’t know what Kerry stands for,” argues Arthur Starr.
“Bush is a disaster domestically and got us into the Iraq quagmire,” counters his wife.
“You called it a quagmire, not I,” interjected her husband, who voted for Democrat Al Gore in 2000.
This is the first time the couple has been on opposite sides of the political fence in 42 years of marriage.
Both sat down two weeks ago and “calmly” discussed the pros and cons of their respective choices.
“But she still won’t see the light,” he says a bit wearily.
Hillel Zaremba works for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or CAMERA. A resident of suburban Philadelphia, Zaremba said he has become involved in this election far more than in previous years.
Unfortunately, it may have cost him a few friendships.
Zaremba, a lifelong Democrat who says he will vote for Bush both because of the president’s support for Israel and because of what he calls the Democratic Party’s pandering, vitriol and swing to the fringe, said his friendships with fellow members of his Conservative synagogue have suffered as he has become a more vocal supporter of the president.
“Do you have any idea of how it feels to be in a community where your viewpoint is constantly disparaged?” he said. “There are certain relationships that I had with people that I believe have dissipated or been strained by my support for Bush. I find that incredibly saddening.”
In the San Francisco area, a Democratic bastion, a group of right-wing Jews launched a local chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
“We used to feel we couldn’t confess our Republicanism in public,” said Ken Wornick, one of the chapter’s organizers. “At the seder, the break-fast, even at Jewish institutional board meetings, there was such intense condescension. Not only did we hesitate to mention our being Republican, since no one was willing to say it, we didn’t even know how many of us there were.”
It seems that the only thing Jews can agree on this election is that passions are running high.
“With an electorate as divided as the country certainly seems to be at this point, people — especially younger folks — see an opportunity to get involved,” said Andrew Jakabovics, founder of Kiruvforkerry.com, a Web site devoted to getting Orthodox Jews to vote for Kerry.
“It is the democratization of the electoral process,” said Jakabovics, a doctoral student in urban studies at MIT. The use of the Internet, in particular, has helped activists collaborate across considerable distances, he said.
The Internet also has been a forum for people in communities large and small to swap views and argue their points at any — and, for some people, all — given moments.
Sidney Perloe, a psychologist at Haverford College outside of Philadelphia, regularly posts messages on the listserv of Beth Am Israel, a Conservative synagogue outside of Philadelphia. Congregants use the listserv to talk about everything from upcoming synagogue events to arguments for and against Israel’s security barrier in the West Bank.
They’re also talking about the election.
“There have been lots of postings,” Perloe said. “People post information they use to convince the other side. Frankly, I don’t think they’re very convincing.”
The online debate grew so heated at one point that the synagogue’s rabbi had to intervene with a call for more civil discussion.
After 11 years heading Conservative congregation Sha’arey Israel in Macon, Ga., Rabbi Aaron Rubenstein felt comfortable “going out on a limb” on Yom Kippur when he delivered a sermon that offered a religiously informed dissent regarding Bush’s action in Iraq.
Rubenstein described how the administration is guilty of the transgressions for which Jews atone on the holiest day of the year, including relying on false counsel, leading others astray and arrogance.
“This was rumbling inside me and I had to say it,” said Rubenstein, who did not endorse Kerry in his speech. “Sometimes a sermon should be a social critique. You have to challenge the status quo.”
Many of his congregants felt otherwise. According to the synagogue’s president, Sheila Elkon, some felt “captive,” and one has threatened to leave the shul.
Rubenstein is mulling over his decision to give the sermon. “It may have been a mistake. People are so polarized” about the war, he said.
“But I’m not sure,” he continued. “I don’t think the words themselves were polarizing. I think people are already polarized.”
(The Baltimore Jewish Times, j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, the Atlanta Jewish Times and JTA correspondent Tom Tugend in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.