Article: The Mensches for the Job
By: Lisa Lerer – (Politico Staff Reporter)
Jun 18, 2007
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a blonde in an electric blue suit, stood out in a sea of black yarmulkes.
“Israel may be on the front lines,” she said. “It faces a common threat to our traditions, our values, our beliefs, and it should be our common cause.”
Clearly, the candidate knows her audience.
She wasn’t the only one. Eight senators, two of them presidential candidates, addressed an audience of 90 Orthodox Jews who were enjoying a kosher lunch and some politics in the Hart Senate Office Building last week.
Every speaker bent over backward to proclaim his or her support for Israel, and most also stressed the growing threat from Iran.
For a group representing just 10 percent of an estimated 5.3 million Jews in the United States, the Orthodox Union attracts an interesting mix of political players. After saying afternoon prayers, the union met with White House spokesman Tony Snow.The night before, its members ate dinner with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
The union’s members were no schleppers, either.
The audience included high-profile Orthodox Jewish advocates including Howard Friedman, the first Orthodox president of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Rabbinical Council of America President Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg and Allen Fagin, managing partner of Proskauer Rose, one of the biggest law firms in the country.
Attractive political targets
The Orthodox Union is the country’s most prominent lobbying group of observant Jews. The international group represents more than 1,000 Orthodox congregations worldwide; it opened an office in Washington five years ago, with a staff of two.
Orthodox Jews are a tiny slice of a small minority in the United States; but for politicians trolling for votes, they’re an attractive target. More observant Jews are significantly more open to Republicans than the rest of the Jewish community.
In 2006, only 25 percent of all Jews considered themselves conservative and 15 percent identified themselves as Republicans, according to a survey by the American Jewish Committee. In the Orthodox community, those numbers are almost double.
“Of all the segments of the Jewish community, the Orthodox is most up for grabs,” said Nathan Diament, the union’s director of public policy.
Did someone say swing states?
Even more significantly, Orthodox Jews have sizable communities in several swing states. Bush targeted those areas in 2004 by holding special campaign events, and the work paid off. In 2000, Bush’s numbers among Orthodox voters were in the 30s.
Four years later, more than half of the voters in heavily Orthodox neighborhoods such as Boca Raton, Fla.; Miami; and Wickliffe, Ohio, a community outside Cleveland, voted for Bush. In Brooklyn and Lakewood, N.J., those numbers rose to two-thirds.
The change could be less about party and more about the absence of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) from the Democratic ticket. Jews don’t have saints, but if they did, Lieberman might be in the running.
During last week’s luncheon in Washington, several speakers emphasized their connection to the Orthodox senator. “He and I will run on a ticket some day,” said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). “We’ll flip on who gets to go first.”
Lieberman largely personifies the quirky independence of the Orthodox community. Orthodox Jews supported President Bush’s faith-based initiative program but are overwhelmingly supportive of abortion rights. They want tougher homeland security and more money for stem cell research.
“Orthodox voters may not be as liberal as other American Jews, but they certainly don’t look like white evangelical Christians in their political views,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
A concentrated approach
The Orthodox Union uses its independence to play on both sides of the aisle. Last July, the group participated in a controversial Jewish Leadership Summit that then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) held during his reelection bid.
Several other Jewish groups boycotted the event. Santorum’s replacement, Robert Casey Jr., spoke at the union’s luncheon last week.
In general, the union takes a more concentrated approach to lobbying than the reform movement, which has the largest Washington advocacy organization of any Jewish religious group. Reform Jews weigh in on a diverse portfolio of legislation.
Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, lists the Middle East peace process, the immigration bill and stem cell research as the top three political priorities for his group.
In contrast, the union sticks to a stable of perennial issues that directly affect the Orthodox community: homeland security, faith and the Middle East.
On the last issue, union members are hawks. In 2006, 56 percent supported the war in Iraq, another 56 percent agreed with military action in Iran and 69 percent believed Israel and Arabs will never live in peace.
Union’s agenda sets it apart
Domestically, the union’s agenda sets it apart from the rest of the Jewish world.
“Issues in connection to separation of religion and the state are of less concern to the Orthodox community,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel for the American Jewish Committee.
Orthodox Jews generally send their children to private Jewish schools, making them strongly supportive of vouchers and school choice. They’re also less worried about the legality of placing religious symbols on public property than are other denominations.
In 2005, the union strongly supported a controversial program that gave Homeland Security funds to at-risk nonprofit institutions; much of the money went to synagogues, Jewish day schools and Jewish nonprofits. The union plans to keep lobbying for additional grants in this year’s homeland security appropriations bill.
The Reform Jews’ lobby opposed that program. “It’s short-term thinking that’s dangerous for the community in the long term,” Pelavin explained. “In the long term, it’s taking steps that will come back to haunt us.”
On religious liberty issues, the union is in sync with the reformers, as well as other Jewish groups. It supports the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which would mandate that employers accommodate most of their employees’ religious needs.