Anxious Jewish Vote On Far Side Of The Gap
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Anxious Jewish Vote On Far Side Of The Gap

Fears and faith confront shrinking Pa. towns in election’s wake.

Associate Editor

‘The country I come from is called the Midwest,” sang Dylan, and different American regions sometimes do feel like different countries, perhaps never more so than after an election. Despite Hillary Clinton’s winning the popular vote over Donald Trump, her votes were so clustered in the Northeast and West that one could drive from the Delaware Water Gap on the New Jersey border all the way to the Pacific Coast states without having to pass through even a single state that Clinton won, such was Trump’s sweep in the heartland.

In phone conversations with Jews in Pennsylvania (a Trump state), Reform Jews in both the east end of the state and in the “Deer Hunter” west end told us they voted for Clinton; Orthodox Jews in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre/Kingston cluster of shtetls (a combined Jewish population of less than 5,000) said they voted for Trump. And while the denominational splits to some extent echoed New York, the small-town Jews came to their conclusions in ways distinctly their own, reflecting their own surroundings, even their isolation.

We spoke to Jews who said it was commonplace for Jews to own guns; that the economy twisted like a knife; that synagogues were consolidating or closing even faster than the factories; and the possible influx of Syrian migrants was seen as threatening by Orthodox Jews who feared importing anti-Semitism and who already thought of themselves as a shrinking, vulnerable minority; a migration welcomed by Reform Jews in deference to the ideal of welcoming strangers.

Scranton is Vice President Biden’s hometown; Clinton’s father lived there, too. And yet, as far back as July, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked Biden, “You’re talking about a guy [Trump] who’s connecting with those workers in Scranton … white, working-class voters, in a way that … Hillary Clinton is not. Why is that?”

Biden answered, “I think the Democratic Party overall hasn’t spoken enough to those voters. I go in my old neighborhoods, and they go, ‘Joe. Hey, Joe, over here. What about me?’” Politicians, he said, have to “let them know that I know what’s worrying them, and why it’s not illegitimate that they’re worried.” Instead, said Biden, we “go in [like] ‘limousine liberals…’”

Lackawanna County (Scranton), heavily Democratic, barely went for Clinton, 49.8 percent to 46.4 percent. A half-hour away, Democratic Luzerne County (Wilkes-Barre), Trump won by almost 20 percentage points. One Republican official said, “People have lost their jobs, their health insurance, their homes. … The only thing left for them to do is vote.”

The Jews of the area shared the uncertainty. Wilkes-Barre once had nearly 7,000 Jews; now less than 1,800. One Orthodox shul seats 940, but no one sits there anymore, hardly a minyan shows up Shabbos morning. The 525-seat Reform Temple is almost empty on Shabbos mornings, as well. United Hebrew Institute, the community day school, was down to six students in 2010 and now it has none. The desolation extends to nearby Hazelton, where membership of one shul dropped from 400 to less than 100. At the old Wilkes-Barre JCC, a six-lane bowling alley is dark, bowling shoes and balls remain, evoking lost and long ago Saturday nights. Most of the community moved across the bridge, over the Susquehanna River, into Kingston.

In Scranton, the most recent Temple Hesed (Reform) newsletter reports, “the congregation can no longer support the current space, which was built more than 40 years ago for a much larger congregation.” The Reform and Conservative Hebrew schools merged, and teach 15 students.

And yet, Rabbi Daniel Swartz tells us, Temple Hesed’s 150-family congregation mostly resisted the trend to vote Republican. “The majority went for Hillary, but we certainly had some Trump supporters.” Some of the members used to be involved in “businesses that used to be much larger here, such as the clothing trades, or general stores. There’s a recognition among our congregants that one of the reasons their kids eventually move away is because of the economic stagnation, the lack of opportunity.” As issues go, “I don’t think Israel was a big divide this time,” the economy was.

“Some of the wealthiest areas had the most Trump signs on their front lawns,” said Rabbi Swartz, “so those were not the people Biden was talking about. But there are blue-collar areas where there is not a lot of hope about the economy.”

Fear of Arab migrants was a Trump issue from the beginning, and in this corner of Pennsylvania, the debate was immediate, not theoretical. “We’re not that far from Hazelton, one of the Ground Zeros for anti-immigrant fervor,” said Rabbi Swartz. Hazelton has a growing migrant population, in a town “worse off economically than Scranton. In downtown Hazelton, stores are shuttered.” NPR reported that many “Latino immigrants came to town in 2006… A wave of violent crime swept across the city. People were afraid to walk around downtown.” That crisis has dissipated, but in neighboring Scranton and Wilkes-Barre some still wonder how their town could handle a similar development. “I’ve spoken about it many, many times,” said Rabbi Swartz, “about the commandment to welcome the stranger, the immigrant. I know there is talk that some of the immigrants in the area are illegal, but I have no way of knowing.”

News of Ivanka Trump making a pilgrimage to the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on the Saturday night before the election was oft-told and excited the Chabad that serves Wilkes-Barre and Kingston. One chasid compared Donald Trump to Purim’s king, a hedonistic, sexually abusive (to Vashti), unpredictable leader who nevertheless had an Esther (Ivanka), whom he loved, and would save the Jews, ready in the palace.

Even before Ivanka, “this is a pretty pro-Trump community,” says Rabbi Ilan Weinberg, dean of Chabad’s Bais Menachem yeshiva. “I didn’t hear too many people who were disappointed with the outcome of the election.” Nevertheless, “There are some chasidic Jews who may feel more aligned with Democratic Party values.”

This is “gun country” and people want their guns here, said Rabbi Weinberg, even in Chabad. “I grew up outside of Scranton, and in public schools the first day of deer hunting season was a day off. For frum [religious] Jews, the guns aren’t for hunting but for protection. It’s not that crime is high, but I’ve heard people say, ‘I’d rather have people snicker for years that I have a gun, and never have to use it, than not have a gun if I’ll need it.’”

People “want a stable society,” said Rabbi Weinberg, “law-and-order.” They don’t want “an influx of the wrong element, without the right police protection.” Arab migrants are “a concern, in terms of the possibility of what happened in some European cities,” referring to the crime and sexual assaults linked to migrants in German cities, such as Cologne. “There’s also the problem of having more and more newcomers qualify for benefits when the community’s ability to pay for those benefits is less and less.”

Clinton, earlier in the campaign, speaking of the transition to clean energy, said, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” She later apologized, but Trump never let her or the old mining families forget it. Trump campaigned in Scranton before the election and countered, “We are going to put the miners back to work, the steelworkers back to work,” never mind that too many mines, too many mills, were as gone as the steam locomotive. The hurt remains like embers.

The Jews of these mountain towns first arrived with the mines and mills, and left with the closures. A few thousand stayed, it was home, be it ever so humble. On Election Day, they voted, some for her, some for him.

As the old prayer goes, “I have dreamed a dream and I don’t know what it means.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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