Undecided On The Bima


Interviews with a dozen New York-area rabbis Tuesday afternoon revealed that many were still undecided whom to vote for in the Democratic primary just hours before the polls closed.

But there appeared to be a growing belief that many Orthodox and some Conservative Jewish Democrats would cross party lines in November to vote for Arizona Sen. John McCain, should he be the nominee, because of what they perceive as his strong, pro-Israel stance.

“I’m having difficulty making a decision,” confessed Rabbi Hertz Frankel, an educator in the school system of the Satmar chasidic community in Brooklyn. “It’s not a simple decision to make. On the one hand, I think Mrs. [Hillary] Clinton has experience and is more familiar with the Jewish community than Sen. [Barack] Obama and has had more contact with it.

“On the other hand, his is a fresh name and people want to try to move with the younger individual. … It’s six hours before the polls close and I’m still undecided.”

“I’ll close my eyes and pull a lever,” he added with a chuckle.

Rabbi Leslie Schotz, spiritual leader of the Conservative Jewish Centre of Bay Shore, L.I., and president of the Suffolk Board of Rabbis, said in a phone interview while driving to the polling station that she was “extremely torn” about whom to vote for.

“I’m a registered Democrat and I will go into the voting booth and decide at that moment,” she said.

Congregants were also said to be having a difficult time deciding.

“People are struggling with the issue of whether he [Obama] is a candidate who understands not only the broader American issues that are very important to us, but whether he gets the Jewish agenda and the issues of the State of Israel and global jihadism,” said Rabbi Charles Klein, spiritual leader of the Merrick (L.I.) Jewish Center, which is Conservative, and the incoming president of the New York Board of Rabbis.

“So people are wrestling with his candidacy,” he added. “There are clearly people who support him, but a very significant group of people are wrestling in their own minds about whether this is a man they can support. I think a lot of people are going to the polls still trying to make up their minds or having just made up their minds. … This is the first time I can remember where this type of wrestling is taking place about any candidate.”

Rabbi Niles Goldstein, spiritual leader of the unaffiliated The New Shul in Greenwich Village and a registered Democrat, voiced similar sentiments.

“I feel I have to make a choice, but I’m still ambivalent and I’m not sure if I’m making the right choice,” he said. “I’m more ambivalent now than at any primary or election I’ve ever voted in.”

Other rabbis were more certain about their choice. Rabbi Jill Hausman, spiritual leader of the Actors Temple in Manhattan, which is also unaffiliated, said most of her congregants are Democrats and that she was “gratified” that the party had a “woman and a black man running.”

“I voted for Hillary Clinton,” she said. “I think she’s the better candidate and I think she’s a highly intelligent person who reflects my values. She is in favor of signing everyone up for health care, unlike Obama. It only works if everyone signs up.”

Rabbi Robert Levine of Congregation Rodeph Sholom, a Reform synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, said he believed his congregation was very supportive of Clinton because “she is a good and responsive senator. People feel she did a great job.”

But there was little passion among the electorate in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, according to Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld of the Orthodox Young Israel there.

“It’s not that the congregants prefer Obama to [Clinton]. They don’t like either. I went to vote this morning and some people said they were wasting their time.

“I went for Hillary,” Rabbi Schonfeld said. “I don’t like her but at least we have Jewish access to her. Obama frightens me. I can’t put my finger on it. He’s a demagogue. Intuitively I worry about that. It’s not a racial issue. He frightens me because he is an unknown quantity, certainly as far as Israel is concerned.”

Regarding the general election in November, a number of rabbis said they believed that many Jews would be switching parties to vote for Arizona Sen. John McCain.

“There has been a lot of pro-McCain sentiment,” said Rabbi William Berman of the Conservative Commack (L.I.) Jewish Center.

Rabbi Schotz said: “I like [Arizona Republican Sen. John] McCain, and with [Connecticut Sen.] Joe Lieberman by his side, that makes him look pretty good. So at the moment, it is a three-way tie.”

McCain is also getting a favorable rating in some pockets of the Upper West Side, according to Rabbi Allen Schwartz, spiritual leader of Congregation Ohab Zedek, an Orthodox shul.

“Most West Siders are registered Democrats and the trend I hear is that many are going to cross party lines in the general election,” he said. “Practically everyone I talked to today is a registered Democrat who is going to vote for McCain. … I think the Jewish community should be open to switching parties.”

Rabbi Klein in Merrick, L.I., said that among his congregants “McCain is very much part of the political equation out here.”

And Rabbi Bruce Ginsberg of Congregation Sons of Israel, a traditional Conservative shul in Woodmere, L.I., said “My guess is that McCain will be looked at favorably by the Jewish people, given his strong approach on the Middle East and his backing for Israel. And the [Sen. Joseph] Lieberman endorsement will weigh heavily in the minds of Jewish voters.”
Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, a demographer with United Jewish Communities, the New York-based philanthropic umbrella group for Jewish federations around the country, cautioned that rabbis reporting signs of mass defections from the Democrats next November “may be getting a biased sample because they’re only seeing Jews who go to shul.” Kotler-Berkowitz cited a 2005 study he authored showing that Jews more involved in traditional observances—including synagogue attendance at least once a month—are more likely to identify as Republicans. Only about one-quarter of Jews are regular synagogue goers, he noted.

The very fact that so many people struggled to decide whom to vote for is a “wonderful development,” Rabbi Goldstein said, “because it means that people were more engaged in the political process than in recent memory.”

One reason for that may be that many people believe the Bush administration is leaving the country in a “real mess,” Rabbi Goldstein observed.

“What that has done is energized and galvanized people to recognize that this stuff has consequences,” he said of the presidency. “We are finally starting to recognize — as have a lot of the younger democracies around the world — that voting is a very important thing that we have taken for granted for too long. Elections have profound real-life consequences.”