A Pivotal Race In The Poconos


Gerrymandering originated in 1812 when, for cynical electoral advantage, a Massachusetts legislative district was drawn with such contorted borders that it resembled nothing so much as a wild salamander with a forked tongue, wings and claws. More than 200 years later, gerrymandering grew so sophisticated, or chutzpadik, that Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, drawn by Republican legislators, found its border resembling “Goofy kicking Donald Duck” or a “moose with antlers,” according to reports.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ordered a more sober redrawing of electoral maps, and so arose a new 7th CD in the Poconos, five miles west of the Delaware Water Gap, neatly following the Lehigh and Northampton county lines, with a garnish of Monroe County along the upper rim.

In the run-up to November’s midterms, all of this is begging the antique question: Is it good for the Jews, especially with two Jewish candidates squaring off in what will be a closely watched race in a key swing state?

The Jewish population of eastern Pennsylvania is too sparse to concern those who draw political maps. There are perhaps 10,000 Jews among the 705,688 citizens of the new district. Assimilation, death and departures have taken their toll, says Rabbi Baruch Melman of Temple Israel of the Poconos, a Conservative synagogue in Stroudsburg, a borough of Monroe County. For most of the 20th century, the town, with a population of about 5,500, was essentially a shtetl. Jews walked to shul from homes that were clustered together. There were kosher butchers and bakers in town; more than a dozen summer camps in the forested mountains to the north; and 80 percent of Stroudsburg’s shopkeepers were Jewish, said Rabbi Melman.

Today, he says, “the percentage has flipped,” with about 20 percent of the shopkeepers being Jewish; there are no kosher restaurants, butchers or bakers; and only one brick-and-mortar shul, Temple Israel. There is a Jewish Resource Center on Main Street that offers outreach programs, but no services except weekdays in August. There is a Chabad but mostly with roving programs outside town.

The region’s population is growing, up 19 percent since 2000, but the Temple Israel’s membership is falling, down to 70 (“mostly Jews by choice,” says the rabbi) from 120 members a decade ago, though 150 show up on Yom Kippur. Younger Jews aren’t moving to the area, though there are day schools in both Scranton and Allentown, 45 minutes away.

Rabbi Melman reckons that most who show up on Shabbos are Republican, while the “once a year Jews” tend to be Democrats, less likely to prioritize Israel as an issue when voting. “I do have some members who come every Shabbos who are outspoken Democrats,” he adds, “but most people feel that the Republicans have Israel’s back more than the Democrats do.” And most agree with the Republicans on guns, albeit more for protection than for hunting.

Despite the district’s small Jewish population, the two candidates for Congress in the redrawn district — Democrat Susan Wild and Republican Marty Nothstein — are Jewish. And yet, while Jews were not targeted in the redistricting, they were its unintended victim. The Jewish Poconos, most any part of which is within an hour’s drive of another, was split into three separate congressional districts. Scranton, home to the Jewish federation that looks after the needs of Stroudsburg, is now in the 11th District. A large part of Luzerne County, including many Jews in Wilkes Barre and a smaller Jewish population in Hazelton (where Jewish fear of Muslim immigration is a big issue), is now in the 8th District. And Allentown, 45 minutes from Stroudsburg, joins it in the 7th.

Rabbi Melman, exaggerating for emphasis, said that with redistricting “the Republican vote is now bitul b’shishim,” referring to a Talmudic equation in which a fraction is so weak as to be meaningless. “Before,” said the rabbi, “any Republican running in this area could be confident of a sure victory; that’s no longer the case.”

The incumbent congressman, Charlie Dent, is one of many Republican representatives not running for re-election in November, leading to Democratic anticipation that the race is ripe for Wild’s picking. President Trump won the old district (the 15th) by 8 percentage points, but Hillary Clinton would have won the new district by a slender 1 percentage point. A survey (ending May 3) conducted by Allentown’s Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, found that 53 percent of registered voters in the district disapprove of the job that Trump is doing. An enthusiasm gap is percolating, with 64 percent of Democrats “very interested” in the coming midterms, 9 percent more than Republicans, according to the survey. In the Wild-Nothstein matchup, the Democrat was favored 42 percent to 31 percent.

Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg, has called Wild the “Goldilocks” candidate — not too hot, not too cold, not too left, not too right, capable of pleasing voters across the district (though Jewish Republicans disagree, primarily on Israel and Iran).

The New York Times wrote that the 7th District is among autumn’s “races to watch.” The Huffington Post said that even the primary race reflected “the fight for the future of the Democratic Party.” If so, the winner is the mainstream, not the resistance. Wild, a former Allentown city solicitor, has been running in the Hillary Clinton lane, defeating in the primary a conservative candidate to her right, who opposed sanctuary cities (Allentown, the biggest city in the district is 49 percent Latino), and defeating an African American to her left, endorsed by Bernie Sanders.

And yet, Republicans can hope. Pennsylvania is one of those battleground, purplish states, according to a Gallup poll, where more voters identify as conservative than liberal. And analysts at Five Thirty Eight, the popular political numbers crunching website, are finding that Pennsylvanians no longer perceive Trump as “alt-right” but as “a mainstream conservative.” When the Muhlenberg survey asked voters in the district what their most pressing issue was, only 2 percent said “stopping Trump.” (The biggest issues were the economy/jobs, 20 percent; health care, 15 percent; education, 11 percent; immigration, 6 percent; and the environment, an issue that has energized Democrats, 3 percent).

Yet, the Muhlenberg survey also found that two of the most emotional issues for Republican Jews — Israel and Iran — had no statistical pulse in the district, not even 1 percent. For most voters, Israel simply wasn’t an issue at all.

Iran was, however, a major issue for Jews. Rabbi Melman told his temple that the Iran agreement (which Trump withdrew the United States from last month) “was a bad deal, and the congregation didn’t share with me too much opposition to that.” Nothstein opposes the deal, which he sees as appeasement. Wild supports it, telling a Bethlehem synagogue in a primary candidates’ forum, “I do not believe we gain any additional security for Israel by upsetting the fragile agreement we have now which has brought about some positive results.” The deal “needs to be improved … but I do believe we must remain in it.”

Nothstein is an Olympic gold medal winner in cycling and a member of the Lehigh County Commissioners. Nothstein or his proxies have voiced support for Trump’s Middle East policies, but his campaign website’s discussion of numerous issues doesn’t mention Israel (or any other foreign policy matter). We telephoned and e-mailed the Nothstein campaign for clarification but didn’t get an answer.

Wild’s campaign website also doesn’t mention Israel (or any other foreign policy issue) but does say that she served on the board of the Jewish Federation of Lehigh Valley. Wild, a lawyer, was also a member of Lehigh Valley Jewish Professionals (the latter was not in her campaign bio). She supported an American embassy in Jerusalem but stressed that the move should have been made only as part of the wider peace process. Wild said that she is concerned about anti-Semitism, in part, because her two children were being “raised as Jews,” but when we asked (by phone and e-mail) what that meant, we didn’t get an answer.

The biggest amplification of Nothstein’s Jewishness came when he was represented at a synagogue debate by Lehigh County’s former Republican chair, Wayne Woodman, a Jew, who wore a large and conspicuous yarmulke to the debate. Woodman said he couldn’t support Trump in 2016 because of Trump’s demeanor, but now feels comfortable with Nothstein’s more dignified character. Both Woodman and Nothstein now agree with Trump on Israel and Iran, even as Wild doesn’t.