Jewish Candidates’ September Dilemma


When the shofar sounded on Thursday and Friday, Scott Stringer wasn’t out on the campaign trail tooting his own horn.

“That’s not a calculation,” explained the Manhattan borough president and comptroller hopeful before the holiday. “That’s a time I’m going to spend with my wife and my two kids, and it’s a great time.”

Stringer took time from the contentious campaign, in which he faces Eliot Spitzer for the Democratic nomination, to attend services at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, a Reform temple on the Upper West Side with his wife Elyse Buxbaum and their two young sons. The couple are particularly fond of the children’s service there. “We’ll spend some time together, and then it’ll be a time to enjoy the holiday. It’s something we Jews do, and we’re actually looking forward to it.”

Rosh HaShanah this year fell on the last full week before the city primaries on September 10th.

Stringer was one of the most high-profile Jewish candidates who this year was faced with the choice of observing the holiday with family and risking lost momentum in the last few critical days before voters pick November’s official candidates.

One of the most heated elections this season has unexpectedly become the match for New York City comptroller, after former governor Spitzer entered the race shortly before the deadline, jeopardizing Stringer’s place as frontrunner. A recent Quinnipiac University poll had the candidates tied exactly, and the last few days of the campaign are crucial.

Yet, both men took off for the Jewish New Year. Spitzer and his family made a change from their usual Temple Emanuel in Westchester to Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, closer to home, because of the poor health of the former governor’s father, Bernard. As Stringer and Spitzer are the only two Democratic candidates for comptroller (and Republican John Burnett is unopposed),the race was all but suspended over the holiday.

Like the Christmas truce of World War I, the holiday comes before the battle. Despite the intensity of each of their campaigns, neither candidate said they entertained the thought of campaigning on Rosh HaShanah. “If you’re looking forward to a respite, it’s nice,” admitted Spitzer of the convenient break from an intense campaign.

Another high-profile Jewish candidate, former congressman Anthony Weiner, who is running for mayor but has fallen to fourth place in recent polls, also took a break from the Democratic primary. “This evening and tomorrow he will be observing the holiday with family and friends,” said his campaign spokeswoman, Barbara Morgan on Wednesday.

(Weiner got off to a bad holiday start Friday while campaigning in Borough Park, when he got into an angry exchange with an Orthodox man at a kosher bakery on 13th Avenue. The man had confronted Weiner and said he should not seek public office.)

In the Manhattan borough president race, Jewish Democratic candidates Jessica Lappin and Julia Menin are competing in a highly competitive contest for Stringer’s current position. Unlike the comptroller race, Menin and Lappin are not the only candidates for their position, and are in fact only two of four current Democratic candidates. Still, both women dismissed the notion of treating the holiday like a regular campaign day.

“It’s a tradition that she keeps,” insisted Daniel Barash, Menin’s communications director. “It’s obviously very important to her and to her family.” He did note that although Menin would celebrate for two days, she will not take the entire two days off and campaign in addition to spending time with her family (they attend the Synagogue for the Arts). But Barash said that Menin is certain.

“I think this is about who she is, and our campaign is about being true to who Julie is. And tradtion and Jewish culture are important to her. I don’t think we view it as a tradeoff. I think our chances are better when voters know who Julie is.”

Lappin, on the other hand, who attended the Sutton Place Synagogue, saw little connection between her Jewish observance and the race.

“[My constituents] never have expressed an opinion in the eight years I have been in the City Council about my faith or the observance level of my faith,” noted Menin. “My faith is important to me, and spending time on the holidays with my family is important to me. The campaign is also important, to me but I’m going” to shul. “It’s an important holiday, so I will be observing it as I always do.” To Lappin and her family, this includes “apples and honey and wine and praying.”

So as many politicians took the holiday off, perhaps some used the time in synagogue petitioning God instead of potential voters, praying for victory?

“A little,” Stringer admitted laughingly. “I guess I’ll think about that during services.”