The right stuff: Jewish support for tea party brewing in Bay Area

Jews in the tea party? You betcha!

In fact, the key person behind the Bay Area branch of the right-wing populist movement is Sally Zelikovsky, a Jewish resident of San Rafael.

Her involvement belies what one might expect from a bloc of people that traditionally lines up behind liberal and Democratic causes. After all, Jewish Americans aren’t apt to latch onto a socially conservative, God-and-country movement that has emerged from the right wing of the political spectrum — right?

Wrong, Zelikovsky proclaims. And beyond the Jews actively involved in the tea party, she says, are many other Jews who are ideologically on board even though they are reluctant to openly express those kinds of political viewpoints.

Sally Zelikovsky photo/norm levin

A 2010 Pew Research Center study backs her up, noting that about 15 percent of American Jews support the ideas of the tea party, if not the movement itself.

Zelikovsky’s personal road to supporting limited government, individual liberty, fiscal responsibility, lower taxes and free markets at all levels of government — in other words, the tea party movement — occurred as part of a gradual political transformation that took her from being a Democrat to a Republican.

As a Jewish resident of strongly liberal Marin County, she experienced a few bumps and jostles along the way, never feeling that her conservative views were welcome in her own backyard. But she eventually emerged as the coordinator of the tea party in the Bay Area and founded the movement’s local arm, the Bay Area Patriots.

“I knew that this was a liberal area, but I had no idea what I was in store for,” says Zelikovsky, 50, who spent three years as a New York City litigator after earning advanced degrees from Northwestern University Law School and Columbia University. She’s now a stay-at-home mother of three.

“You get older, you have kids, you get involved with the kids … Everything sort of starts snowballing,” Zelikovsky says in an interview in her suburban home. “I was trying to figure out where I fit.”

The puzzle pretty much snapped into place after she and her husband, Alex, moved to Marin 12 years ago. Wherever she went, from participating at school board meetings to listening to others at her synagogue, she began to feel a “visceral hatred” for her point of view.

Ilene and Bob Meyers photos/norm levin

Being in such environments “made me realize I was more conservative than I cared to admit,” she says.

That realization galvanized her into action. About five years ago, Zelikovsky began inviting fellow conservatives to her home for salon-like discussions, “so we could have a place to talk about issues, and do so freely … without fear of being ridiculed, marginalized and maligned.”

From there emerged the Bay Area Patriots — described on its website as “a nonpartisan, grassroots organization … whose beginnings were founded in the Tea Party movement of 2009.”

Zelikovsky is a blur of political activity: A prolific writer of opinion pieces, largely for the conservative online magazine American Thinker, she keeps the Patriots’ website current, organizes rallies and other tea party events, speaks to conservative groups and serves as a spokesperson when Bay Area media outlets seek a local tea party voice.

Among her admirers are staunch Republicans Bob and Ilene Meyers of Larkspur. “We’re very proud of her as a Jew and conservative leader,” states Irene, 70,  a retired public school teacher and principal who serves as second vice president of Marin Republican Women.

The Meyerses are ardently pro-Israel and adhere to the AIPAC model of supporting candidates who support the Jewish state. Bob notes that they have made financial donations to Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, and other Democrats, strictly due to their pro-Israel stances.

But make no mistake about it: They are both Republicans who are now drawn to the tea party. Why? The Republican Party has “lost its way a little bit in the last 10 to 15 years,” says Bob, 75, a scientist who was a post-doctoral fellow at Caltech, has written or edited 12 scientific books and holds more than 20 chemical patents (and who still works out of his home and a local coffeehouse).

Moreover, two tea party tenets — supporting Israel and reducing the size of government — are “a major thrust of everything we do,” Bob says. “You won’t find a stronger group for Israel. It’s very easy to be pro-Israel and pro-American through the tea party.”

And through the Republican Party, as well, the Meyerses say. They take comfort in their estimation that most of the current candidates for the Republican presidential nomination are friends of Israel, as does Lisa Cohen of Menlo Park.

Cohen says the second intifada (the Palestinian uprising that erupted in September 2000) triggered her ramped-up pro-Israel activism and distanced her from the Democratic Party she once supported. Now she is a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition and a strong supporter of the local chapter of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.

Lisa Cohen in front of her “politically incorrect” SUV

“The tea party stands for things that I believe in: less government, less regulation, less taxes,” she says.

And, she adds,  “The people are so pro-Israel.”

Cohen believes there is more Jewish support for the tea party than one might think. “I know there are [Jews in the movement],” she says, “but not everybody is willing to come out as a tea party person. They’re afraid of being ostracized.”

Masha Merkulova of Redwood City isn’t afraid to show her tea party colors. A member of Congregation Beth Jacob on the Peninsula and the leader of a local teen club for unaffiliated Jewish boys, she openly aligns with many tea party positions.

A former Democrat whose friends used to call her “a bleeding heart liberal,” the Soviet émigré says she began learning more about Israel and discovering her Jewish identity when she came to the United States with her family at age 18.

“I began moving more and more to the center, and probably now to the right,” says the 37-year-old, who has a hearty respect for Zelikovsky.

“Most people are very surprised when they find out the founder of the Bay Area movement is Jewish, a mom,” Merkulova, an obstetrics nurse, says. “She is absolutely unique. And it’s good. Jews have always been movers and shakers.”

Merkulova acknowledges it’s not easy being a Jewish conservative in the Bay Area. But the more that Jews show their faces, perhaps minds will change, she hopes. “We’re not scary. We’re not crazy.”

Still, changing minds might take some time. In one of her online pieces in 2009, Zelikovsky pointed to the “onslaught of ridicule and vilification” she experienced after the election of President Barack Obama, when she tried “to have civil conversations with Democrats” and felt brushed aside.

She implies that discomfort led her and her family to leave Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, where they had been members. Though she gives the congregation credit for letting her put an ad in the synagogue bulletin seeking fellow Jewish conservatives (“I got eight to 10 responses,” she says), she says she found the atmosphere “[too] ideologically driven” which was “wrong, wrong, wrong.”

“It is a problem in Marin County when you’re a Jewish conservative,” Zelikovsky charges. “There’s a lot of preaching from the pulpit that’s liberal — without regard to people sitting in the congregation.”

This past year, her family began worshipping at Chabad of Mill Valley.

And her Jewish values mesh just fine with tea party causes, says Zelikovsky, who grew up in a Reform household and sent her children to the San Rafael campus of Brandeis Hillel Day School. “Conservatives tend to embrace individual responsibility, charitable giving … and I can say with total confidence [that] the Israel love among tea party people is huge.”

The Meyers, who belong to Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, are well aware of their minority status in the Marin Jewish community and the domestic Jewish community at large.

Whereas they are comfortably outspoken among their Republican friends, and they had no problem attending a breakout session on the tea party at this year’s national AIPAC conference, elsewhere they avoid political discussions.

Says Bob Meyers: “There is very little sharing of politics with our Jewish friends. They get angry. We get angry.”

Cohen, on the other hand, openly shares her views. Her self-described “politically incorrect SUV” sports Sarah Palin and National Rifle Association bumper stickers, and she sometimes wears a T-shirt emblazoned with U.S. and Israeli flags.

Masha Merkulova and her son, Philip, promote Israeli goods last March at Lucky Supermarket in Los Altos.

“I don’t feel alienated, because I’ve been active [as a right-winger] for so long,” says Cohen, who has served as membership chair of  Orthodox Congregation Emek Beracha in Palo Alto, and started Conservative Congregation Kol Emeth’s Israel action committee.

“I just feel that there are a lot of my brethren who are closing their eyes to facts.”

Those facts, as the tea party sees them, include a federal government that is overspending, overtaxing and over-regulating. It’s domestic issues such as those, beyond the tea party’s pro-Israel stance, that have driven some Jews to support the movement.

This past April, Steven Windmueller of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles released a study that confirmed the Pew findings that tea party values resonate with about 15 percent of Jews.

Using a cohort of 2,300 Jewishly engaged voters, Windmueller’s study found that men (51 percent) were more likely than women (31 percent) to find the tea party “refreshing” rather than “alarming,” as were 45 percent of voters in their 60s versus 20 percent of voters in their 20s. Just as religiously conservative Americans in general support the tea party message, so did 67 percent of the Orthodox respondents in Windmueller’s study, versus 20 percent of the nondenominational and Reconstructionist Jews he surveyed.

In a September post on his website, the Wind Report, Windmueller wrote, “The Jewish vote is more complex than the media often describes.”

For example, on the issue of gun control, the media often writes that a majority of American Jews are anti-gun. Yet there is a sizeable number of Jews, such as Cohen, a card-carrying member of the NRA, who are pro–Second Amendment — a common tea party sentiment.

A Jew-by-choice who converted at the age of 15, Cohen grew up in “shoot ’em up Texas,” she says, and attended Texas A&M, “just like [Rick] Perry,” her favorite for the Republican presidential nomination.

“If you don’t want a gun, don’t have one,” she says, dismissing government regulation as unnecessary and intrusive. Cohen owns and has used firearms.

Gay marriage? That’s a state issue, not a federal one, she says, adding that she has “family members who are gay.” Abortion? That’s a states’ rights issue, too, she says.

Labor unions? A property appraiser for the County of San Mateo, Cohen belongs to the Service Employees International Union and is not happy about it. “I am not in favor of the SEIU.”

Her views on many social issues lie far to the right of mainstream U.S. Jewish thinking. And why are so many Jews liberal? “I feel like we’ve gotten too soft and we care too much about being liked,” she posits.

The Meyerses are also sour on unions, even though Ilene was once a member of a teachers union. The couple says that unions were “absolutely necessary” before World War II, but have served their purpose.

In summing up tea partiers’ opinions on unions, Zelikovsky paints a moderate picture. “We’re not anti-union,” she says, but “public pensions are bankrupting states, municipalities and cities.” She adds that unions are in bed with Democrats and “out in full force with the Occupy movement, which is problematic.”

And in summing up tea partiers in general, she says, “We are people with families. We drink the water. We breathe the air. We eat the food … We are not anti-environment, but we do have a different approach.” Tea party supporters favor “minimal government intrusion and maximum freedom,” she says. “It’s a balance that we are looking to achieve in society.”

As for abortion: “We don’t go there,” Zelikovsky states. “Why do I have to take on abortion or gay rights when there are so many other issues?”

Zelikovsky, who says she has thought of running for office someday, hasn’t decided whom to support in the Republican primaries. Though she hosted a fundraiser breakfast for Michele Bachmann in September, she says she would do that “for almost all of the [Republican] candidates.”

One thing is for sure: She has crossed Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) off her list. “I would have a hard time with him for his foreign policy and his stance on Israel,” she says.

Merkulova feels the same way. “Israel is sort of my litmus test” when considering candidates, she says. “I would look very carefully on where they stand on foreign policy.”

Ilene and Bob Meyers are backing Mitt Romney. They liked Sarah Palin, and then they liked Herman Cain, “but we have to be practical,” Ilene says.

“When you try to steer the ship through water,” Bob says, “you don’t make any hard left or right.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.