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American Orthodoxy’s political suicide

Here's how the community sabotaged its own political interests and reached a point when mask-burning and death-threats were somehow acceptable

The great writer Aaron Sorkin wrote: “decisions are made by those who show up.” Sadly, if there’s anything the American Orthodox community has done over this past year, it has been to show up in all the wrong places. The terrifying scenes of bonafide Nazis, KKK members, and anarchists running over Capitol Hill, staging an insurgency against the United States of America, and the assault on the heart of America, have terrified Americans and people all around the globe. The scenes of Orthodox Jews among those thugs is the logical conclusion of what has happened in our community over the past four years. If this does not bother you on a moral level, let it be clear: American Orthodoxy has now successfully and deservingly earned itself political irrelevance. This irrelevance was hard-earned and will leave its impact for years to come.

On January 20th President-Elect Joe Biden will be sworn into office with a majority Democratic Congress and Senate. New York State Assembly is now held by a supermajority of Democrats, predominantly progressive, and, yes, the vast majority of Orthodox Jews live in blue states. The hard work of so many individuals and organizations have earned us the right to perhaps beg for their mercy if we need something, not much more. Destroying years’ worth of political capital and inflicting great damage on American support for the Jewish community and for Israel, individuals and organizations will have a lot of time to think about this demolition.

While it is hard to know where to begin with this political autopsy, I will attempt to do so here:

City and state level. More than 1.1 million Jews live in New York City alone. Many more live in New York State. The decision of so many Orthodox Jews and organizations to confront the governor, the mayor, public health officials, and the NYPD yielded little fruit and huge damage. With more than 100,000 Jewish yeshiva students in NYC alone and a governor who allocated more funding for Jewish institutions than any governor before him, one would think that the bull in the china shop would be slightly less aggressive. The Agudath Israel of America decided to sue the Governor, something I cannot imagine he appreciated.

Then came the infamous mask burnings in Boro Park, the beating and lynching of those who dissented, the Trump flags, and the exotic appearance of the Heschy Tishlers of the world with their color and gravitas, using graphic profanities against the mayor’s wife. Not only did these images deal a devastating blow to the standing of Jews in New York City and State; they were also projected around the world. TV stations from France, Russia, and many other countries gave prime time coverage to the mask burning, vulgarity slinging individuals in Boro Park, with unlikely feelings of sympathy for the damage it would inflict on the image of Jews around the world. Tweets of sympathy from recognized figures like Mark Levine, Rush Limbaugh, or Ted Cruz can feel great to a small community; they won’t fund our day schools, synagogue security, or help us solve the myriad issues that need to be solved locally.

In Congress- Let us start with the simple fact that 80% of congressional seats are decided during the primaries and that most Orthodox Jews live in heavily Democratic areas. Jews often have a huge opportunity to make their vote count in who the candidate is, while their vote in the actual outcome of the race has far fewer implications. Overall, Orthodox Jews who have historically registered as Democrats have a strong voice in primaries. This year, Jews in many blue areas opted out of the Democratic Party, disempowering themselves and making their votes significantly less effective.

This was most evident in Riverdale, where longtime congressman Elliot Engel, a Democrat who was also chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a true friend of Israel, lost his primary 55% to 40% to progressive Jamaal Bowman. This surprised many, especially as thousands of Orthodox Jews live in the area and should have been able to come through and vote for Engel. When Engel lost, I asked a friend who lives in the district if he voted, and he said no. He had registered as a Republican. His vote in the Republican primary in his area is as effective as his vote for the Narnia presidency, and the lack of his vote has dealt a huge blow to Israel.

Max Rose, a Jew, a US veteran, and a reliable centrist, was unseated in Staten Island with a large Orthodox Jewish community by Republican Greek-American Nicole Malliotakis. A group of Orthodox rabbis even signed a letter supporting her candidacy against that of Max Rose, and indeed she won. So, we lost a sitting congressman who strongly supported Israel and the Jewish community from within the Democratic Party and democratic controlled House, in favor of another obscure Republican in the minority Republican House – Mazal Tov. What an achievement. Next time someone complains how far the Democratic Party has gone and why support for Israel is lower among its members, it will probably be true, partly because pro-Israel voters failed to stand up for those who support Israel.

United States Senate- New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez was the first Democrat to break rank with then-President Obama on the Iran deal. He was the first one to come out and publicly oppose the Iran deal. This was partially due to having large pockets of Orthodox constituents who strongly opposed the Iran deal. Senator Menendez went on to pay a heavy political and personal price for breaking party ranks and opposing the Iran deal. When election time came around, the Orthodox community voted in large numbers for Menendez’s Republican opponent—something those who know Menendez said broke his heart. Menendez won the election anyway. Next time the Orthodox community in New Jersey wants to ask the good senator for something, it will probably be more difficult. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who didn’t listen to his Orthodox constituents and didn’t pay that price, most likely feels little regret about the matter.

Then came the Federal level. Whether you support it or not, the religious fervor for former president Trump in the Orthodox community is unprecedented and unparalleled. Never in the history of Orthodox Jews in the United States has the community bet all of its chips and shown all of its support in such a one-sided way. Gone was the traditional wisdom and recognition that in elections, there are winners and losers or the notion that putting all eggs in one basket might not be smart.

Much has been said about the unprecedented religious fervor for candidate Trump. All I can add to that in retrospect is that we now know it was a losing bet. From the dozens of Brooklyn lay leaders who chose to pay $12,000 a plate to have dinner with someone who would be out of office in less than a year, to the leading rabbis’ “unprecedented” letter of support”—it was all a losing bet. Mazal tov.

Illustrative: Brooklyn’s October protests. photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP

Next time the Agudath Israel of America wants to meet with members of government claiming they are a non-partisan religious group, they may have to explain why they chose to write a letter to Mitch McConnell supporting the nomination of Amy Coney Barret to the Supreme Court. It is unlikely that Mitch McConnel ever saw the letter they sent. More likely is that other city and state officials whose help our community really needs did see it. This was yet another example of us better our political fortunes for no apparent gain.

The destruction of our ability to respond to anti-Semitism- While the rabbis and Jews in every generation understood that the way we behave as a community can have an impact on the way we are treated and thus made leniencies in halacha with the logic of mipnei darkei shalom or mishum eivah (for the ways of peace or for the concern of being targeted), anti-lockdown Brooklyn was going to have none of it. They wanted full equality. They wanted to be able to burn masks in the streets, sue Governor Cuomo, violate city and health regulations, and to be treated with all fairness. “Why can they loot and riot and we can’t do this?!”, came the question our parents and grandparents would never dream of asking. Previous generations all knew if you are Jewish, you must behave with extra courtesy wherever we are. Here we had a generation of young Jews who sought the ideal equilibrium between how to maximize bad behavior while expecting zero negative impact on our community. For the most part, they did this with little protest from rabbis and community leaders. This was the tone that dominated Orthodox publications and public figures.

This approach was all the more curious considering that less than a year prior when at the Agudah Convention, leading Agudah rabbis were asked about the rise in anti-Semitism; they knew exactly who the culprits for anti-Semitism in America were: Jerry Nadler, Adam Schiff, and Chuck Schumer of course. The good rabbi went on to point out these were all Jewish politicians who had the Chutzpah to engage in the impeachment of the President of the United States. Do they not know we are in Golus?!

This did not seem to explain why a week later, a member of the Black Hebrews Church went into a synagogue in Monsey and stabbed Hassidic Jews; they knew liberal Jews brought it on ourselves. A few months later this sense of personal responsibility seemed to have disappeared. This anecdote highlights how deeply partisanship blindness has seeped into our community, destroying our ability to see Antisemitism for what it is and spelling disaster for our ability to confront it.

One of the most powerful lessons of Jewish communal life has been that of the Jewish community in the U.K. who came together to fight the scourge of Jeremy Corbyn. Jews from across affiliations and backgrounds came together and defeated an anti-Semite of a generation.

Should there be another rise in anti-Semitism on the streets of Orthodox neighborhoods as we saw a year ago and the Orthodox community would like to build a broad coalition against it, other Jews might want to know why the Orthodox community was largely absent from the No Hate, No Fear solidarity march on the Brooklyn bridge. This rally was organized largely to support the Orthodox community, which was facing daily violent attacks, yet most of those same Jews ignored this rally. At this rally I met Jews from Ohio and Florida who came in to support their Orthodox brethren, yet those could not make the ten-minute car ride to the rally.

Progressive Jews may also wonder why it is that when 400 (mostly non-Orthodox) rabbis signed a letter expressing grave concern for matters of life and death during the pandemic of a generation, supporting public health officials, they were attacked in response. Agudah spokesperson Avi Shafran thought that pointing out his righteous abstinence from using Zoom on Shabbat as addressing the broader community’s concern for matters of life and death. Perhaps he thought it was amusing; others saw it as a mockery of concern for life and death and an inability for shared dialogue on existential issues.

Then came the medical community—a physician in the field of critical care lamented to me not long ago: “how can people who ask me to do a surgery on their 90-year-old, braindead relative with stage three cancer not be willing to wear a mask to save lives?” I do not have an answer for him. The voice of religion is one that is often invoked in the field of medicine, and rightfully so. Religion sanctifies life, which is why it has such a respected voice in the field of medical ethics, beginning, and end of life, and other related matters. The conduct of the Orthodox community during this pandemic, including its role and championing of SCOTUS decision, is likely to make its voice far less respected in the medical community. As of now, more than 3,500 people are dying from COVID every day. To be the culprits in tying the hands of public health officials during this time and then advocate against the medical community’s standards of end-of-life care evokes a mixture of irony and tears. If we end up finding out our community members are dying at equal rates to those who go to hair salons at least we will know we earned that equality ourselves.

Turning on one another. With all of its imperfections, the most beautiful thing about the American Jewish community has been our ability to stand together and support one another. All that changed in the past year. Suddenly political affiliations superseded our longstanding bond with each other. We saw on the streets of Boro Park those who dissented get beaten and receive death threats. The minority of the Orthodox community that did not share the political views of the vast majority found themselves on the outs in the best case or actively being threatened in other cases.

My friend Rabbi Barry Kornblau, a longstanding member and leader in the Rabbinical Council of America and rabbi in Queens, wrote an opinion piece arguing in favor of candidate Joe Biden. The response he got? Death threats, denigration, and violent rhetoric. My dear friend Jake Adler, a yeshiva graduate who worked for years successfully advocating for millions of dollars for Jewish day schools got a job as Governor Cuomo’s liaison to the Orthodox community. His reward? Relentless attacks on social media, and Orthodox Jews trying to hurt him professionally. This vile behavior is unprecedented in the history of American Jewry. My friend Rabbi Ben Kelsen, a black-hatted Orthodox rabbi in Teaneck, has worked on former President Obama’s team and now on president Biden’s team and lives in Teaneck Bergenfield. His reward for trying to advocate for the community? Being called a Kapo when leaving the house with his kids. While these examples are individual, they are not the only ones.

Members of the Orthodox community who didn’t align their belief with the Trump trend were made to feel again and again that they do not belong. A community that prided itself so much on its faith now placed another precondition for joining: political alliance to now-former president Trump. This kind of blind loyalty to political idols over human decency and in violation to Jews’ historic commitment to one another is a low American Jewry has never seen. The community has now succumbed to the ultimate destroyer of Jewish communities throughout history: it became deeply fractured from within. The consequences of a divided community are both moral and pragmatic. Fractured communities are less capable of thriving, growing, and representing themselves to the outside world.

Courts– while there is no question that religious communities are likely to gain more sympathy in the now conservative SCOTUS and other courts, that sympathy did not have to come at the cost of our voice in the political system and elsewhere. Furthermore, the Supreme Court does not pass budgets, build communities, and support day schools. Sure, the courts do have great powers, but judging by the number of Orthodox Jews moving to Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi, our communities depend on more than just a vacuum and neutral space for religion. The Agudah may see their future spent in the court halls and offices of big law firms, something which may surely yield some results, but it will not relocate where most Orthodox Jews live.

Finally, I do not believe it is over – or close to over – for a proud and impactful Orthodox community. However, in order to move forward from its current state, all Orthodox Jews need to think hard about the following questions:

Is there room for those with different political opinions in our community? When we engage in Kiruv and outreach, will we be telling people that not only do they need to keep Shabbat and Kosher but that they also need to be Republicans? What kind of space will there be in our communities for those who openly express different political options?

Rabbis, leaders, and laypeople will need to ask themselves what they are doing to make sure their communities are synagogues and yeshivas and not just a Jewish version of Liberty University. Communities will need to think really hard if they are driving away those with different politics and if that exclusion is forgivable from a religious perspective.

Those who purport to vote Republican because it is the “pro-Israel” party will need to ask: is this support because of Israel or is it similar to the fact that in Hassidic New Square, 2,973 people cast their votes for Trump and 6 to Biden or that in Satmar’s Kiryas Joel 6,159 voted from Trump and just 72 voted Biden. I do not judge anyone for voting one way or the other, but when you say you are the “pro-Israel voter,” or when you shame those who vote for pro-Israel candidates in the Democratic Party when in fact, they are the ones working hard to assure support for Israel, that is an entirely different issue.

Just a year ago, Yisroel Besser wrote very wisely in Mishpacha Magazine an article about hosting non-Orthodox college students for a Shabbos meal and how they were turned off when they realized what his political positions are. He went on to advocate for a more politic-free Orthodoxy:

“These students searching for truth heard only about Trump. They missed the power of Kiddush, missed noticing the way a frum couple speaks to each other, didn’t perceive the unique dynamic of children who sit around a table and connect as a family, week after week.

I had blown it by bringing Trump to the Shabbos table.

I feel like many of us have fallen into the same Trump trap as the rest of America, forced to take one side or another. But we’re not politicians, so why go there at all? We all believe the same things, more or less. We all believe HaKadosh Baruch Hu put the man in power. So why shrink ourselves and all we have into the same little world where we check off boxes — are we Fox people or CNN people?

We’re neither.”

While the message seems to have eluded its author, the publication, and its audience in the months to come, it remains true. An Orthodoxy that is toxically political is likely to turn off many – inside and outside its ranks. The beauty of Judaism, our ability to communicate it to others, and our ability to represent ourselves to the outside world as standing for a higher value, will be severely damaged if we continue down this path.

That does not mean we should not be politically active. It does not mean it should be impossible for the vast majority of us to vote one way or the other. It does mean that our public sphere needs to be what it used to be – a Mikdash Me’at, conducted with wisdom and prudence even during challenging times. The work towards this goal needs to come from each and every one of us, from rabanim, leaders of organizations, and publishers of frum weeklies who have taken an increasingly political role steering a community towards consequences editors and writers may not have to bear, but others will. Let us begin the process of healing our community, as Rav Ahron Kotler famously told R’ Moshe Sherr: “if Hashem wills it, nothing is impossible.”

Hasidic2 on Twitter: “פארט צים רבין אין וואשינגטאן” / Twitter

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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