Entering a Borough Park public school early Tuesday, David Tilis was emphatic about his pick for president.
“I’m Jewish, so it has to be [George W.] Bush,” said Tilis, 21, a mortgage broker en route to casting his vote for the Republican incumbent. “I don’t understand how any Jew could vote for [Sen. John] Kerry. Yasir Arafat is for him.”
But outside the crowded polling space at St. Gabriel’s rectory on Riverdale’s leafy and autumnal Netherland Avenue, Sarah Mendlovitz — sporting both a “Mothers Against Terrorism” button and a John Kerry campaign pin — was less impressed with the president.
“What Bush has done is abdicate any responsibility for the Middle East,” she said.
Kerry, Mendlovitz said, “is good on Israel, and his approach to terrorism will ease the tension and not exacerbate it.”
Tilis and Mendlovitz, two boroughs and a political world apart, were among dozens of voters interviewed Tuesday at polling places across New York City and on Long Island who related a cross-section of views on perhaps the most polarizing election in U.S. history.
Though they shared geographic proximity and mutual concern over Israel and other issues, they viewed the candidates in starkly different terms.
According to exit polls published by major news organizations, Jews in New York State went overwhelmingly for Kerry by a margin of 80-18 percent, though interviews with Jews exiting the polls suggested that in Jewish neighborhoods Bush fared better. Jews made up 8 percent of the vote in the state.
For many, the most significant factor was the ongoing war against terrorism and who was better suited to prosecute it.
“[Bush] understands and has acted properly on the great foreign policy issue of the day — the war on Islamic fundamentalism,” said Ronald Rubin, a political science professor at Manhattan Community College who voted in Riverdale. “He changed the whole conversation about terrorism and Israel away from evenhandedness and moral equivalence.”
In Woodmere, L.I., Moshe Cederbaum, 40, a real estate financier who described himself as Modern Orthodox, said he mistrusted Kerry’s worldview.
“The core issue is terrorism,” and how the government can prevent a recurrence of the 9-11 attacks on the United States,” Cederbaum said.
As to the safety of Israel, he said, “As far as I’m concerned, it’s the same issue.”
But Gerald Kosloff, 78, of Dix Hills, L.I., viewed the president far less favorably, voting for Kerry “because the other guy’s an idiot.”
An employment counselor who described himself as a “secular Jew,” Kosloff said Israel’s security was a factor in his decision, and called Bush’s much-touted support for the Jewish state “based on conservative nonsense. It has more to do with biblical claptrap.”
Eugene Richman, 80, a resident of the Grand Street Co-Ops on the Lower East Side, also was unimpressed with the president’s Israel bona fides.
“It’s malarkey,” said Richman, who said he supports Kerry’s domestic and international agenda. “No U.S. president has ever done a bad job for Israel, even that anti-Semite Richard Nixon. So there’s no reason to believe Kerry would be bad for Israel.”
Lynn Bernstein, 49, a kindergarten teacher in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, who described herself as “a lapsed Jew,” rapped the president’s diplomatic skills.
“I think Kerry will be able to do a better job of negotiating” peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, she said. “Bush is incapable of any kind of diplomacy.”
Although strong Orthodox support for Bush was apparent, it was far from universal. In the lobby of an apartment building on West 93rd Street on the Upper West Side, Shulamit Lerner, 33, an Orthodox woman who defined herself as a longtime “liberal Democrat,” said she voted for Kerry “for every reason imaginable.”
“I want a thinking man in the White House,” she said, “who doesn’t think he was sent by God.”
Alex Kaganowicz, 58, of Dix Hills, said he voted for Bush because “during these times we need a strong leader and not a wishy-washy person.”
But as he sat waiting for the 8:04 a.m. train to Penn Station, Harold Jaffe, 82, of Great Neck said he had voted for Kerry because “he’s much more trustworthy and not a liar, a coward and a bully like his opponent.”
While Israel and world affairs were a top consideration for many, domestic concerns were evident as well.
“Bush is for school choice, faith-based programs,” said Dovid Gross, 25, a yeshiva student in Borough Park. “The Republican line is against abortion and gay rights, and No. 1 on the war against terror.”
Gross said media coverage of Kerry’s campaign had “prejudiced” him against the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, but his “flip-flops confirmed it.”
An elderly couple voting in Woodmere also placed domestic concerns at the top of their list, but they chose Kerry. They declined to give their names, but the husband called the president’s economic policies “a disaster” and said he is “afraid of the Supreme Court becoming ultra-conservative” if seats become vacant during a Republican administration.
“I also think that religion should play no part in politics,” he added.
Nancy Chilton, a Reform Jew on the Upper East Side, said she feared that “if Bush wins, the next four years will be brutal in terms of women’s rights, the environment and the number of people who will die in Iraq.”
Philip Ross, 58, a Great Neck lawyer, said he voted for Kerry because of his social and economic agenda, and because he is against the Iraq war. A member of a Reform synagogue, Ross said he had voted for Gore in 2000.
“Bush has shown his incompetence in running this country,” Ross said.
As they arrived at the Woodmere High School polling place, Jared Katz and Chaim Freud said Bush was good for small businesses. Katz, 33, and Freud, 34, own Lasagna Chips, a Woodmere-based kosher food manufacturing plant.
Freud called Bush “honest” and said his “tax policies are fantastic for business owners.”
In a blend of domestic issues, Katz said his support of gun control factored into concern for homeland security. What if the terrorism of 9-11 reaches the streets of the U.S., asked Katz, who described himself as a sportsman and had a National Rifle Association sticker on his black SUV. “What about the right to defend yourself?”
In the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where Israel is less of a factor because of the anti-Zionist stance of the predominant Satmar chasidic sect, Bush emerged as a favorite among the voters polled because of a perception of integrity. The trust factor seemed to motivate a number of voters in casting their vote for Bush.
“He’s an honest man, he does what he has to,” said Goldy, pushing her baby carriage down Bedford Avenue, declining to give her full name. “He does not do what others say, what the press says [he should do.]”
At the Long Island Rail Road station in Great Neck, Helen Leipzig, 46, a paralegal who voted for Bush in 2000, said she voted for Kerry because even though “he’s not the best choice, he’s the lesser of two evils.”
“I’m opposed to what Bush did with the war and the money he spent,” she said, puffing on a cigarette. “I’m tired of Bush.”
Leipzig, a member of a Reform synagogue, said Israel was a factor in her decision to leave the Bush camp.
“I don’t think Bush did the right thing with the Middle East peace,” she said, “and I’m hoping Kerry does a better job.”
Sam Husney, 55, of Great Neck said he also voted for Bush four years ago and that he decided over the weekend to vote for Kerry.
“I think he’s more articulate, he comes across more confident, and he seems to have a better grasp of the issues,” said Husney, a member of a Conservative congregation and the president of a management consulting business.
Also among the Bush defectors was David, a Satmar chasid in Williamsburg who was influenced by economic concerns.
“I need to work, people need to work, and he’s bad for the economy,” said David, who declined to give his full name. “The economy is better with a Democrat [in office].”
David also said the president’s handling of the war in Iraq was “a disaster.”
But on the Lower East Side, Gussie and Herman Gewanter, both 90, shifted in the opposite direction, marking the first time they cast their ballots for a Republican president, though they voted for Democratic candidates running in state and municipal elections.
“Bush takes care of the Jews,” said Gussie, who is Orthodox.
Upper East Sider David Friedman, 22, an Orthodox Jew who voted for Gore four years ago, said he cast his ballot for Bush.
“I know the war on terror is more important than anything else,” Friedman said. “[Bush’s] Israel policy is also agreeable, and that was one main issue for me.”
But on the Upper West Side, a base for liberal Orthodoxy, Janie Fossner, 27, dismissed the notion that Bush had acted in Israel’s interests.
“I think the peace process is important, and Bush has done nothing to promote it,” said Fossner, 27, who runs a program teaching city high school students about international issues and who sported a pro-Kerry sticker in Hebrew on her messenger bag.
“There are so many reasons to vote for Kerry,” she said, counting among the top four the war in Iraq, education, foreign policy and the environment.
The adjoining neighborhoods of Midwood and Borough Park in Brooklyn, home to the highest concentration of Orthodox Jews in the nation, lent credence to the conventional wisdom that Bush would gain heavy support among the strictly observant.
In Midwood, Eli Yeger, 53, an attorney, credited the incumbent with improving the nation’s security while suffering “ a lot of bad news and a lot of bad press.” Kerry, he said, failed to “articulate a clear policy on the question of world terrorism and the war in Iraq, and why he was for it and then against it.”
Outside P.S. 192 on Borough Park’s 18th Avenue Aaron Klein, 32, who works in the diamond business, said Bush was his choice because “he’s conservative and he fights terror.” If Kerry were elected he would “raise taxes and [implement] liberal policies. We’ve never had a better friend than George W. Bush.”
Chaim Gantz, 35, accused Kerry of taking differing positions on important issues.
“Bush was running against two major candidates: Kerry and Kerry,” he said.
While both Bush and Kerry “are pretty good on Israel,” Gantz added, “when someone flip-flops that much, you can never really trust him.”
If Bush’s Brooklyn stronghold was Borough Park, the multi-ethnic, gentrifying but middle-class Prospect Heights just a few miles north came across as solid Kerry turf.
Arthur Rosenbaum, 53, said he was troubled by Bush’s evangelical fervor.
“I respect Bush’s morality, but religion is a private matter,” he said. “I’m a big believer in the separation of church and state, so I’d rather these decisions about war and other things be made on the reality of the situation instead of on theology.”
Wearing several anti-Bush buttons on her coat, Mary Goodson, 45, a voice-over artist and real estate broker, described herself as “Jewish in name only.” She voted against Bush because “he’s horrible for the environment and for the economy. He’s also the anti-science president. He’s afraid of thought and he’s venal.”
Kerry, said Goodson, “is thoughtful and intellectual. He’s done a lot of great work on Senate foreign relations committees, is an excellent investigator and understands how Washington works. He also understands our place in the world. And I just found out that he’s one-quarter Jewish.”
Michael Fink, 64 and a communications consultant, saw the election in crucial terms.
“The country is in grave jeopardy,” Fink said as he drew on a freshly lit Pall Mall outside P.S. 9 on Underhill Avenue. “President Bush and his cadre of advisers are eroding our constitutional rights, which I find even more frightening than his missed calls on the war and the environment, both of which I’m passionate about.”
‘An American First’
Fink was one of several Jewish voters who reflected the recent finding in a National Jewish Democratic Council poll that Israel was a low priority to some 85 percent.
When asked how the Jewish state factored into his thinking on the election, Fink said, “Honestly, not at all. I feel like the horror that is happening in the Middle East has been exacerbated by Bush’s foreign policies."
Mendlovitz, the Riverdale resident who belongs to the Orthodox Hebrew Institute there, said issues close to home were on the front burner.
“I’m an American first,” she said. “This is my country. The economy is in the tank. As a senior citizen, I am very frightened about Medicare and Social Security. The deficit scares the daylights out of me.” And she thinks the president is a liar “about everything.”
As a religious Jew, did the president’s faith and values mean anything to her?
“Oh, please,” she said. “I believe in separation of church and state. But I am in favor of charter schools and parochial school subsidies. People who pay taxes for education ought to get something back for their education.”
Also in Riverdale, Yoni Liss, a Columbia graduate who will soon be leaving for Israel to write for The Jerusalem Report, said he felt compelled to put American interests first.
“Even though I’m planning to live in Israel, I don’t know how right it would be to vote as an American on that single issue,” said Liss, who voted for the independent Ralph Nader as a protest.
Liss said he didn’t like Bush’s policies on the environment and the minimum wage, which he has opposed increasing. But Liss said he wasn’t going to vote for Kerry “just because he’s not someone else.”
The Russian Vote
The Russian-Jewish community, which makes up an ever-increasing share of the Jewish vote here, appeared to be breaking by large majorities for Bush, although younger Russians apparently were showing a much greater propensity for Kerry than their elders.
According to exit polls conducted by the Research Institute for New Americans, as of 2 p.m. Tuesday, 233 Russian-speakers surveyed at the polls in heavily Russian sections of Brooklyn favored Bush over Kerry by 74-23 percent.
A smaller, less definitive cross-section of Russian speakers in Queens was going for Bush by 86-14 percent.
Dr. Sam Kliger, director of RINA, predicted that Bush’s eventual margin over Kerry in the Russian-speaking community would be in the range of 65-35 percent.
Arkady Burdetsky, a middle-aged circus performer who lives in the Luna Park housing complex in Coney Island, said he had voted for Bush because “I feel safer from terrorist attack with Bush as president. Kerry seems to me to be just another politician.”
Aron Kosoy, a 75-year-old retiree, remarked, “I believe Bush is the strongest friend Israel has ever had as president.”
Was Kosoy concerned that a re-elected Bush might make cuts in social service programs upon which he and many other Russian pensioners depend?
“I’ll accept getting a little less SSI every month if Bush can keep us safe,” Kosoy said. “Americans need a decisive leader in these dangerous times.”
Lena Zinuhova, 43, said she voted for Kerry because “I am most concerned about domestic issues and believe that Bush made a big mess out of the economy.
“Before Bush was elected, I was making good money as a computer programmer, but was soon laid off and now make much less money in sales. My 21-year-old daughter also lost her job as a billing clerk and can’t find another position,” she said. “I don’t know that much about Kerry, but after seeing what Bush has done to our standard of living, I’m ready to take a chance on someone else.”
In Forest Hills, Dr. Michael Manasherov, 56, a psychiatrist from Soviet Georgia, voted for Bush because the president “did a fantastic job in removing [Saddam] Hussein” from power in Iraq. “I think Israel will be safer with Bush as president.”
Despite a vigorous, heavily televised campaign, some Jewish voters remained undecided even as they arrived at the polls.
Entering the Candlewood Middle School in Dix Hills, Jerry Bogin, 63, of Hauppauge made up his mind to vote for Kerry while “coming here this morning. This was a tough decision.”
Bogin said he had voted for Bush four years ago, but Kerry’s “pro-choice” stance was the decisive factor.
In Borough Park, Yakov Turk, 35, said he was still deciding as he chained his bicycle outside P.S. 192.
“My rabbi says to vote for Bush,” Turk said, and he was leaning toward Bush because of “all he’s done to help New York get back on its feet after 9-11.”
Deborah Douek was still torn as she arrived at the Forest Hills High School’s polling machines.
“I really made up my mind the moment I went into the [voting] place,” she said.
In the end Douek, 27, an Orthodox childhood life instructor, picked Bush because of the president’s record on Israel. Kerry, she said, had not spelled out his positions on the Middle East. “I didn’t hear Kerry say anything about Israel, for or against.”
With reporting by associate editor Jonathan Mark; staff writers Stewart Ain, Gabrielle Birkner, Debra Nussbaum Cohen, Steve Lipman and Liel Lebovitz; correspondent Walter Ruby; and editorial intern Shmuel Steinberg.