Whither the Jewish vote Ask a group of activist Jews

washington | “This is so hard,” fretted Stephanie Grossman after listening to a friendly Jewish debate over the merits of George W. Bush versus John Kerry as president.

President Bush, for now, appeared to trump Sen. Kerry on Israel, said the Atlanta doctor, who was attending this week’s United Jewish Communities young leadership conference.

“I’m a true-blue Democrat and I really see the Republican administration as more supportive of Israel, and I see a lot of Democrats support the Palestinians unfairly, and I don’t know what Kerry’s stand is,” she said. “It even crossed my mind to vote for Bush despite how horrible he is on the other issues.”

It was a common dilemma expressed by Jews from across the country, ages 25 to 40, who were gathered for three days of workshops on issues of concern to the Jewish community. The conference was capped by a morning of lobbying in Congress.

In this heated election year, when the Jewish vote is a major topic of discussion, the gathering provided an opportunity to take the political pulse of a self-selected group of some 1,800 Jews interested enough in Jewish affairs to make the trek to Washington.

Their political views balance a commitment to Israel with the bread-and-butter issues that make up the day-to-day lives of all Americans.

The combination of domestic and foreign concerns was reflected in the four lobbying issues the delegates brought to Capitol Hill and their lawmakers on Tuesday, March 23: emergency funds for Medicaid; money to help secure Jewish buildings from terrorist attacks; support for Israel’s West Bank security barrier, and concern about Iran’s weapons of mass destruction.

The conference’s keynote speaker, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., attempted to place the four issues under a single rubric: social justice.

“Conservative and liberal, Democratic and Republican — Jewish values and interests are best served when they are heard across the political spectrum,” Saperstein said.

Susan Kardos, a project leader at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, said she didn’t draw a particular Jewish line through her political thinking.

“The issues of interest to the Jewish community are the issues of interest to American society,” Kardos said.

Mark Rubenstein, the executive director of New Orleans’ historic Touro Synagogue, said Israel would not trump his concern for other issues, especially the stagnant economy.

“Both of the candidates are pro-Israel, and even if one of the candidates was stronger or weaker, you can’t only focus on Israel policies,” Rubenstein said, adding that he would vote for Kerry in Novem-ber.

Rubenstein appeared to reflect the conference’s majority.

Howard Brown, who runs PlanitJewish.com, a nonprofit Jewish dot-com out of San Francisco, said Jewish views coincided with wider American views on some issues, and split with most Americans on others.

For some Jews in San Francisco, Brown said, Bush’s proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage would overwhelm Israel considerations.

Eric Hamerman of Dallas said it was a stretch to believe one could unify Jews under issues that do not directly relate to supporting Israel or combating anti-Semitism.

“The challenge facing the Jewish community is that 10 years ago, when I was in college, the Jewish community spoke in one voice on many issues,” he said. “At this point Israel is the only thing we agree on.”

As an example he cited the plan to lobby on Medicaid. He said he would have preferred to focus on job creation, saying that increasing unemployment would likely lead him to vote for Kerry in November.

Whatever one’s stripe, the key was to get involved, U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) told conference-goers.

“Making sure our people were never in a position of powerlessness again — this is why I ran for Congress,” she said. “Our clout far exceeds our numbers. The secret is going to be how to keep it that way.”

She advised Jews to choose a candidate, then “walk a precinct, do a coffee for them, make phone calls.’

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.