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A voter fills out their ballot at Public School 160 in Brooklyn on Nov. 3, 2020David Dee Delgado/Getty Images
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The New Jewish Vote

Angered by Cuomo and de Blasio, powerful Orthodox and Hasidic communities break ranks with the Democrats and challenge NYC’s political math

by
Armin Rosen
November 06, 2020
David Dee Delgado/Getty Images
A voter fills out their ballot at Public School 160 in Brooklyn on Nov. 3, 2020David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

For much of America, election night had the dread clarity of psychedelia, every passing minute sharpening every last visual or mental input to a point of unbearable acuteness. Existence itself was on the offensive; it was as if the entire nation were staring at smartphone or television screens layered in raw onion. Seemingly the only off-ramp from this hell led to an apartment on a quiet block in Crown Heights, alongside three Chabad Hasids who seemed blissfully detached from the whole thing. Between the hours of 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., Ohio went for Trump and Wisconsin went for no one and civil war broke out in Ethiopia. And yet there were more important things going on, even if the millions of people obsessing over the election had been tragically forgetful of this fact.

“The point of emunah [faith, more or less] is sanity,” one of my hosts noted. HaShem could cure your election blues. “This is the crux of all Yiddishkeit,” another declared, as I sipped a strong and extremely viscous honey liquor: “Care not from a place of fear but from a place of duty ... We never should do something as a Hasid out of worry.” To drive yourself crazy over an election reflected an un-Hasidic inability to right-size earthly events. Jews shouldn’t be political neutrals, of course, but they shouldn’t blow things out of proportion either. “Just because God wants us to daven from a certain nusach [text, to keep it simple] doesn’t mean he wants us to vote from a certain nusach,” my host added.

Still, at that very moment, messages were quickly accumulating from a WhatsApp group I’d joined earlier in the evening. Almost all of the messages consisted of nothing more than numbers between 1 and 150, corresponding to psalms that the author was reciting in hopes of a Trump victory. Whether they were Hasidic or Litvak, yeshivish or modern Orthodox, Syrian or Bukharan, more traditionally minded Jews flocked to the polls on Tuesday. Lines wound into Borough Park polling stations late into the 8 p.m. hour. The nonpartisan get-out-the-vote organization KlalVote estimated that between 3,500 and 4,000 community members voted in the Orthodox parts of Far Rockaway, shattering expectations—usually the number hovers around 1,500. “The black progressive new congressman in Monsey will need to visit 3 tishes per week for next 2 years if he wants to keep his seat :),” one clued-in Orthodox Brooklynite quipped over text message.

In the city, Orthodox Jews are often registered Democrats, since general elections aren’t usually competitive and nearly all of the city’s meaningful politics take place within the Democratic Party itself—thus the conservative and Trump-supporting Dov Hikind represented South Brooklyn in the state Assembly as a Democrat for over 30 years. In certain Haredi areas, a highly cohesive block vote in Democratic primaries gives the local Orthodox an unusual degree of political sway, protecting the subsidies and social welfare programs that sustain those communities’ way of life. But Tuesday’s results hint that the Orthodox connection to the party is now largely tactical.

Even before precinct data was available, there was strong circumstantial evidence that there had been historic turnout in Orthodox communities across New York and New Jersey and that the benefits had been largely—though by no means solely—reaped by the Republican Party. Republicans have likely flipped a state Senate seat in a South Brooklyn district that includes Orthodox and Syrian Jewish areas, as well as state Senate and Assembly districts in Rockland County that include large Hasidic enclaves. A Republican took an unexpected election night lead for an open state Assembly seat in disproportionately Orthodox Great Neck. First-term Democratic Congressman Max Rose was ousted with the help of the Orthodox vote in Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn; Long Island Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin, once widely believed to be on his way to defeat, ended Tuesday with a comfortable lead.

In a sense, the Orthodox communities in New York are an exception in the blasted psycho-political landscape of the 2020 election. An indecisive presidential vote, split control of Congress, and a notable incongruity in up-ballot and down-ballot success among the major political parties all mean that almost no one in America will be fully satisfied at Tuesday’s outcome. In this landscape of ambiguity, the Orthodox are a rare unambiguous winner. “Now that we’ve proven to ourselves that we have the ability to bring out the vote in a big way, there’s no question that our community can decide close elections in the future,” said Elie Schwab, a lawyer and co-founder of KlalVote.

In New York City, the rise of a more reliable and cross-partisan Orthodox vote has far-reaching implications. A recently introduced term-limits measure means that 34 of 48 City Council seats will become vacant next year—much to nearly everyone’s delight, Mayor Bill de Blasio will be term-limited out of office as well. This year’s state Senate, state Assembly, and congressional results in South Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island show that New York City isn’t quite as monolithically blue as believed. The Orthodox represent a potential swing vote in future elections, coming from a community that just turned out in massive numbers. “Are those candidates going to look at these yeshiva kids that are a larger number than the charter schools students are in New York City and say we have to get to know them and talk to these families?” Maury Litwack, head of the Orthodox Union-affiliated Teach Coalition, wonders about next year’s municipal hopefuls. “Are they going to look at us, as we’re larger than a lot of the blocs of unions in the city, and say hey, we gotta go talk to people, or are they going to dismiss it and say oh, we can’t get that vote? I think that would be a colossal mistake.”

Explanations for the spike in turnout vary. Litwack’s organization launched a national get-out-the-vote effort aimed at Orthodox Jews in 2019. He estimates that his group mobilized some 500 volunteers and initiated phone or instant message contact with around 60,000 people, a network that was then utilized to remind Orthodox Jews to vote, as well as to determine who still needed to be nudged to go to the polls. The organization maintained an English-, Yiddish-, and Hebrew-language voter assistance hotline and mounted a registration drive, notching over 2,000 new voters in the Hasidic portion of Williamsburg over the course of a few days earlier this fall. Some 30,000 yeshiva and day school students were sent home with letters reminding their parents to vote.

KlalVote set up an online system using volunteers at 70 Orthodox synagogues in Far Rockaway and Long Island that allowed people to publicly self-report that they had voted, which then gave KlalVote an idea of which congregations were lagging in turnout and in need of more assertive outreach. “For this election we didn’t base our voter data on publicly available lists. We based it on what we know best, our shuls,” says Schwab.

Activists correctly sensed that in 2020, the Orthodox vote could be unlocked in more organized fashion than in previous years. “Our grassroots outreach was building on broad, communal discontent with our political voice,” says Schwab. The introduction of new methods, and the accurate sense of the need for some deeper and more proactive forms of political engagement, still doesn’t entirely explain why nonvoters were convinced to turn out this time—someone can be reminded to vote, and even convinced that it’s important to vote, and still decide it’s just not worth doing. Perhaps the political environment, both in New York and in the country at large, changed in a way that made Orthodox Jews believe they couldn’t sit this election out.

One shift had to do with the unique appeal of Donald Trump, whose seeming commitment to Israel, claims to defending religious traditionalism, and surprisingly granular overtures to the Orthodox community dating from the early days of the 2016 campaign turned the president into a beloved figure in parts of Brooklyn and Queens—in the days before the vote, Trump flags festooned intersections on 13th Avenue in Borough Park. The other shift was the coronavirus.

In the month before voting began in New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo enraged Orthodox communities by shutting down schools and religious institutions by decree in response to a local increase in coronavirus test positivity rates. The Jewish community did not appreciate their neighborhoods being declared “red” and “yellow” zones during televised press conferences while viral upticks in the rest of the state went suspiciously unremarked upon. Yeruchim Silber, a rabbi and director of New York government relations for Agudath Israel of America, wrote by email that he believes high Orthodox turnout was a function of high turnout nationally. Still, he added, “The whole COVID issue is one where people’s lives and routines have changed in a discernible way due in large part to government regulations in regard to closing of schools, houses of worship, along with other restrictions. People have felt frustrated and speaking at the ballot was a way for them to be heard.”

Voting didn’t rectify the insult—Cuomo is still the governor. But it might have reminded politicians of both parties that there are large communities that will not automatically vote in lockstep with New York City’s Democratic political monoculture, and that there are pockets of real, increasingly organized dissent from the state’s and the city’s current path. God might not want Jews to vote from a certain nusach, and there may indeed be more worthwhile things than an election as far as causes of all-consuming existential panic go. But New York’s Orthodox Jews are seeing less and less of a virtue in political apathy.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.

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