Divisive election has frum Iowan praying for tolerance

POSTVILLE, Iowa — Aaron Goldsmith is back where he started — on a city council in a seat that was given to him, challenged by some of his neighbors in this small town and finally returned by voters.

The embattled councilman, a Lubavitch Chassid, endured months of gossip and a flurry of anti-Semitic hate mail while trying to hold on to his seat.

But on April 24, the voters of Postville, Iowa, came out in force to show their support for the town's first Jewish council member.

Nearly 52 percent of Postville's 1,047 registered voters cast ballots during the special election, choosing Goldsmith by a comfortable 325-216 margin.

"It's amazing. Usually we get about 5 percent coming out for a council vote," Postville Mayor John Hyman said.

Why all the interest?

Goldsmith became the center of a political controversy the likes of which this small farm town had never seen. It all started Dec. 26, when the city council, by a 4-1 vote, appointed Goldsmith to fill a midterm vacancy.

Soon after the appointment, Postville retiree Arlin Schager circulated a petition challenging Goldsmith's right to the seat. Echoing some townsfolk who said officeholders should be elected rather than appointed, Schager said citizens should "decide for themselves who they wanted for a councilperson."

The petition forced a special election in which Schager's daughter, Tracey Schager — who had hoped to be appointed to the seat — ran against Goldsmith.

"I never thought it would drag on this long, or be such a big deal to everyone," she said.

The days after the election, Goldsmith says now, brought a sense of relief.

"Neighbors got back to being neighbors again, and there was a bounce in everyone's step," he said. "People said the air just felt friendlier."

Today, Jews and gentiles alike stop Goldsmith on the street to shake his hand and say they're glad he won. And the support wasn't limited to Postville.

"I got a flood of international calls from some very influential rabbis, who told me that the positive impact of this election is being felt worldwide," Goldsmith said, pointing to framed articles about him on his wall.

Diversity is a new buzzword for Postville, whose 2001 census showed a 54 percent jump in ethnic populations from 10 years ago, the largest increase in Iowa.

The town was primarily white and Christian until 1988.

Then a kosher meatpacking plant opened, bringing frum families to the rural region — along with job-seeking immigrants from Mexico, Eastern Europe, the Philippines and elsewhere.

Hyman welcomed Goldsmith's addition to the council, saying, "he's an incredible asset for us, for our diverse population, and it did my heart good to see that the people of Postville agreed."

The election gained national attention as the town polarized around questions of race and religion. Some saw Postville's Jews as standoffish, while others considered the townspeople bigoted.

The town already had been the subject of widespread outside attention, including a book by University of Iowa professor Stephen Bloom. In "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America," Bloom contended that the Chassids' insular ways don't "work at all in a tiny, cohesive town of 1,500, where people depend on one another to survive."

As for Goldsmith, he's glad to be able to get back to city business and his own company, Transfer Master Products, which manufactures adjustable beds.

One of Goldsmith's goals is helping Postville's immigrants move toward owning their own businesses and homes.

"I want to see this town revitalized, by not only welcoming these people to town but helping them to make the next step — taking pride in their part in the community," he said.

All is calm in Postville now, but the divisiveness could return as the November general election nears. Goldsmith is undecided about whether he'll seek the full term.

"I'm taking it a day at a time right now," he said. "This whole process took a big toll on me."

For now, he said, "the only goal I have is to finish what I started — energizing the city and moving it forward."

One thing's for certain: Regardless of whether Goldsmith sets foot in the political arena again, this election will leave its mark on both him and Postville for years to come.

"We were just this nothing little town, and then all of a sudden it was like struggling for and then winning the World Series," he said. "It's a victory everyone can be proud of."