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America Decides 2004 on Israel and Domestic Issues, Orthodox Come out for Republicans

October 29, 2003
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Aliza Bloom has changed since her days working for Charles Schumer, one of New York’s top Democrats.

Her hair is longer, she has traded in the long hours for stay-at-home motherhood, she’s more religious — and she’s voting Republican.

She’s not alone. Increasing numbers of young Orthodox men and women are reaching out to the Republican Party, which is enthusiastically grasping their hands for support and fund-raising dollars.

More than 400 supporters, many of them under 40 and wearing yarmulkes, gave Vice President Dick Cheney a standing ovation when he spoke at a Bush/Cheney re-election fund-raiser in New York City on Friday. The $2,000- a-plate lunch was geared toward devout Jews: “Dietary laws observed,” the invitation noted.

The event points to an emerging convergence of a more active Orthodox Jewish community and a Republican presidential ticket they believe merits their vote.

President Bush’s support for Israel and his war against terrorism help explain his support among those attending.

“What Bush is committed to is the safety and security of Israel, and he understands that Israel has a right to defend itself,” said Mordy Rothberg, 29, who attended the dinner on behalf of his company, IDT Telecomm.

Orthodox Jews generally are not as conflicted in their support as are many other Jews, some of whom support Bush because of his Middle East policies but worry about his domestic agenda.

“A lot of the domestic agenda that is important for Orthodox Jews is more aligned with the Republican Party,” said Bloom, 33, of Passaic, N.J., who worked for Sen. Schumer when he was in the House of Representatives.

Most Orthodox views on gay rights and abortion are closer to the Christian beliefs that drive the GOP agenda, and Orthodox leaders embrace charitable choice and school vouchers, believing such Republican policies can aid Jewish education.

Still, the devout Jewish community until now has been quiet on national politics, at least compared with the activism of non-Orthodox Jews. Some say the new enthusiasm comes from young leaders.

Jeffrey Ballabon, a 40-year-old leader in the Orthodox community who sponsored several tables at the Cheney event, said young Orthodox Jews are more comfortable in politics than are their elders, and do not have the same fears about speaking out.

“We’ve been brought up feeling very comfortable in a philo-Semitic America,” said Ballabon, an executive with Primedia Television.

The Orthodox community has been growing in the United States and has become more affluent, increasing opportunities for political giving. But there have been obstacles.

“Orthodox lives are busy,” said Bloom, who notes that the Orthodox pray more frequently than other Jews and are likely to have more children. “It’s a luxury to be involved in politics.”

The focus until now has been on local politics: In New York, for example, Orthodox Jews play a major role in races for New York City mayor and New York Senate. They also spend their money on bettering the Jewish community, building day schools and mikvahs.

And they traditionally have supported Democrats, who have been better at building alliances among immigrant groups based on shared interests in social action.

Younger religious Jews like Ballabon, who like Bloom is a former Capitol Hill staffer, say the Orthodox community now is likelier to find like-minded advocates among the Republicans.

“By dealing with Republicans, it doesn’t seem like politics as the art of the deal,” he said. “It feels more like politics are an extension of values.”

“We don’t have to go out of our way to thank Democratic friends who stand up for Israel because it’s part of the standard Democratic agenda,” said Luchins, a member of the Orthodox Union board. “But the Republicans who do it require special appreciation from our community.”

Other issues, such as the Republican social agenda, are not as important to Orthodox Jews, Luchins said.

“The very issues that Republicans need to hold their right-wing base are the issues that scare Jews out of the Republican Party,” he said, listing abortion and prayer in public schools.

Nonetheless, he said, he’s glad that some Jews are supporting Bush and other Republicans — it means Democrats will no longer take the Jewish vote for granted, and Republicans will consider the Jewish vote in making policy decisions, Luchins said

Orthodox Jews have been making their voices heard in Washington since the years between the world wars, said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. Even during the war, Orthodox leaders marched on Washington to seek intervention against the Holocaust threat.

In later decades, the Orthodox chose to work behind the scenes rather than follow the example of Jewish organizations that established successful political action arms in Washington.

That has changed in recent years.

“With the success of Jewish action committees and pressure groups, the Orthodox community came to the conclusion that their voice was not being heard,” and they didn’t necessarily agree with what Jewish leaders were saying, Sarna said.

The Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America have opened Washington offices within the past decade. The groups have become known for breaking ranks with more liberal Jewish groups, backing the Republican administration on issues like faith-based initiatives, for example.

Their support has been noticed in the White House, and has prompted increased outreach to young Jewish leaders such as Ballabon, a member of the “Maverick” group of young fund-raisers for Bush’s re-election campaign.

Orthodox Republicans say that the Republican stance on Israel has helped open the door for more people to take the party seriously.

“Many in the Jewish community who are traditionally Democrats are supporting him because of international affairs,” said Michael Landau, 39, a real estate developer in Manhattan, who recently raised money for DeLay. “And more and more in the Jewish community are becoming Republican, regardless of the international issue.”

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