Jewish life at the convention, on and off the floor

boston | The Jewish action at the Democratic Convention in Boston didn’t necessarily occur on the convention floor. Small gatherings of Jewish activists and organizations near the FleetCenter shined a light on concerns about the Middle East and domestic dilemmas that are crucial to Jewish voters in the 2004 election. Here’s a look behind the limelight:

Cheers, then mourning

The convention floor saw an eerie switch Monday, July 26, from cheers of joy to chants of mourning. At 11 p.m., minutes after delegates cleared the floor hoarse from cheering President Clinton’s rousing speech endorsing John Kerry for president, about 30 Jews gathered in the Florida section to chant prayers commemorating tragedies that have befallen Jews on Tisha B’Av, including the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem.

Some delegates literally took to the floor, hewing to the tradition of sitting on the ground for the prayers. Others grabbed Kerry-Edwards caps for head coverings. Rabbi William Hamilton of Brookline’s Kehilath Israel led the prayers.

Reaching out to the Jews

Even before the convention officially got off the ground, top Democratic lawmakers appealed to Jewish voters for support, saying their party represented the best interest of Israel and was the natural home for Jews on domestic issues. Bringing together more than 2,500 local and national activists, delegates and influential politicos, the Sunday, July 25 evening reception was hosted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the National Jewish Democratic Council, the United Jewish Communities and Boston Jewish groups.

Those in attendance heard from Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-S.F.), the House minority leader, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the convention chairman. “Never has there been a candidate for president that has been more closely aligned, who is more committed to Israel’s security, than John Kerry,” Richardson said.

Terror front and center

Relatives of victims of Israel terrorism shared their stories Sunday, July 25, in front of more than 1,000 supporters. In an effort to keep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the minds of Democratic delegates, participants hoisted signs bearing the faces of victims of terrorism — both in Israel and in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires.

“Only coming together to speak as one voice of the free world will we be able to eradicate terror,” said Ron Kehrmann, father of Tal, who was killed in a 2003 suicide bomb attack in Haifa at the age of 17. The event, sponsored by the Israel Project, coincided with pro-Israel advertisements broadcast on local television and cable news networks. Proponents want viewers to draw parallels between terrorist attacks in Israel and in the United States.

Dianne Colter Miller, whose sister, Ruth Colter, died in the Hebrew University suicide bombing attack in 2002, said she believed victims of terrorism have a common bond. “When I see these photographs, I see my own sister echoed in a thousand faces,’ she said.

An Arab and Jew make peace

Newman Abuissa, a Palestinian activist, and Alan Koslow, a pro-Israel activist involved in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, once had strong differences: Koslow backed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the Iowa caucuses, and Abuissa stood strictly in the Kerry camp. The two, who are among Iowa’s 65 delegates to the convention, overcame that problem, and now they are even rooming together in Boston.

Abuissa, an organizer for the Arab American Institute in Cedar Rapids who visits the Middle East once a year, and Koslow, a Des Moines doctor who visits Israel regularly, say they enjoy comparing notes.

And Coleman makes 10

Perhaps there was concern about forming a minyan, because there aren’t just the nine Democratic Jewish senators present in Boston. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), one of two Republican Jews in the Senate, is in the city as well. He’s part of the rapid response team the Bush/Cheney campaign has assembled. A member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Coleman is tasked primarily with refuting foreign policy positions of Kerry and other Democrats.

“It’s certainly a narrow experience that I have here,” he said. “I’m certainly not hanging out with the Minnesota Democratic delegates.”

While Republicans have been trying to highlight individual comments Kerry has made about Mideast issues, Coleman suggested the campaign would focus in the future on whether Bush or Kerry represents strength and consistency in foreign affairs. That message is also central to their attack on Kerry’s stance on the Iraq war.

Coleman said he believes the Republican message to the Jewish community will go beyond Israel. He believes Jewish voters will appreciate Bush’s education initiative, No Child Left Behind, as well as the economic opportunities he says Bush has provided during tough times.