Wooing the Jews — Democratic hopefuls court Iowas sparse Jewish families

des moines | Des Moines’ Jewish community has only about 1,000 families, but it’s vital enough to turn out a minyan reliably for the essential lifecycle 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 suburban Maryland 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 re-election committee.

“We take politics for granted,” said Lu Gene Isleman, who attended a synagogue forum Nov. 23 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.

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 closing — “Let us say Amen” — and the audience of 8,000 shouted back, “Amen!”

“That was amazing,” he said afterward.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief