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America Decides 2004 Despite Their Small Number, Iowa’s Jews Leave Their Mark

November 19, 2003
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Des Moines’ Jewish community has only about 1,000 families, but it’s vital enough to turn out a minyan reliably for the essential life cycle events: weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and coffee with presidential candidates.

Iowa’s position as the first battleground in the presidential electoral season means the state’s Jews receive the attention of candidates eager to test out policies on Israel, church and state, and other matters important to U.S. Jews.

Rabbi Ari Sytner, who moved to Des Moines from New York five years ago, marveled at the difference between politics in the two states.

“In New York, you see hustle and bustle and action, but I’d never experienced political action like this,” said Sytner, who heads the Orthodox Beth El Jacob synagogue. “Here, I’ve met Dan Quayle, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton. I’ve had Joe Lieberman in my home.”

Statewide, there are no more than 7,000 Jews in Iowa — one quarter of one percent of the state’s 2.8 million people – – but Jews here display few of the insecurities often found in isolated communities.

“It’s smaller and very active. It’s very easy to get involved and make an impact,” said Heidi Moskowitz, who moved here with her husband David from Washington’s Maryland suburbs four years ago.

Jewish political involvement reaches deep into both parties: Paulee Lipsman directs the Democratic legislative staff in the state house and has worked on campaigns for Sen. Tom Harkin; Bud Hockenberg is a key Republican strategist and chairman of Sen. Charles Grassley’s 2004 reelection committee.

“We take politics for granted,” said Lu Gene Isleman, who attended a synagogue forum Sunday with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich. “You get used to all these candidates showing up.”

There are plenty of signs of an active Jewish life in a state better known for freezing winters, flat plains and some of the largest hog farms in the world. There is a Jewish day school through grade eight and two Jewish delicatessens. The Des Moines community last year completed an eruv, or Sabbath boundary, working in close cooperation with the city council.

In recent years, the city’s Jews also have built an auditorium and a lodge for Jewish summer campers on the outskirts of Des Moines.

Community members have posted a “Jobs for Jews” Web site to attract interest in Des Moines, a center for the financial-services and health-care industries. Jews here also have sponsored the arrival of Jews from the former Soviet Union and Argentina in recent years. A small Chabad outreach center serves Jews in outlying towns.

Most remarkably, there is a Jewish kollel program training four Orthodox rabbis, and a program for troubled Jewish youths from other communities around the country.

In interviews, Jews credited their willingness to assume a high profile in the state to Iowa’s warm, unbigoted populace.

“People in Iowa are sweet and loving,” said Karen Weiss, who is active in Tifereth Israel, the Conservative synagogue that hosted the political forum for the presidential contenders Sunday.

Hockenberg, a fourth generation Iowan, said his grandfather — who as a young man worked as a peddler in the Iowa countryside — would always remind him that Iowans readily gave him shelter and food in the winter.

Hockenberg said, “My earliest memory is of him carrying me on his shoulders into a polling booth when I was three or four, and saying: ‘This is a great country, always vote.’ “

Another facet of Iowa Jewish life is the willingness of all three Jewish denominations to work together. Sytner noted that all three denominations contributed to the renovation of his synagogue’s mikvah, or ritual bath.

“I’ve never seen the interaction among Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews that I’ve seen here,” Sytner said.

While the state’s political importance isn’t the principal attraction, Jews here say it indeed plays a role in their decision to live here.

“Judging from my e-mails, a quarter to a third of the house parties in Des Moines are in Jewish homes,” said Alan Koslow, a vascular surgeon who is active in the Democratic Party.

Koslow joined Dean’s campaign a year ago, when he bumped into Dean handing out leaflets on a street corner.

Sytner was asked to deliver the invocation at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, the massive Democratic fund- raiser that kicks off the season culminating in the January caucuses. His simple parable about helping one another ended with the traditional sign off — “Let us say Amen” — and the audience of 8,000 shouted back, “Amen!”

“That was amazing,” he said afterward.

There are the typical small town Jewish issues: Parents have to lobby hard to reschedule major exams slated for Jewish holidays.

“You have to explain a lot,” Weiss said.

That was part of the attraction, said David Moskowitz, Heidi’s husband.

In Maryland, “it was like living in a ghetto in a large safe city,” he said. “Here you have to reach beyond the Jewish community.”

There also is the occasional discomfiture faced by Jews across the nation.

“The only time it comes out is with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Louie Sloven, 16. “A lot of my friends wear ‘Free Palestine’ buttons.”

Ames, a nearby university town, has a large Arab community, and a local library recently ran a Palestinian film festival. The library blocked several Israeli students from distributing information about one of the films, which alleged a massacre in 2002 by Israeli soldiers in the Jenin refugee camp, in the West Bank.

The Israelis were disappointed that the Jewish community did not do more to counter the films’ propaganda.

“I got a sense of, ‘You pay your dues, you go to shul, but you don’t make a big deal,’ ” said Alex Yakubsen, one of the Israelis.

Sytner and Hockenberg both say they’ve encountered Holocaust revisionism among some Iowans.

Still, Jews here consider themselves more confident — and involved — than they would be elsewhere.

Lipsman, the Democrat, and Hockenberg, the Republican, both said they were surprised in 2000 to encounter Jews elsewhere who were unnerved by Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s historic place on the Democratic presidential ticket.

“I just don’t buy that it would be bad for the Jews if there were a Jewish president,” Hockenberg said.

Lipsman said an experience in 2000 brought home the Iowa Jewish message for her: A group of recently-arrived Russian Jews wanted to register to vote.

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