Philadelphia — Clifford Lipkin is a lifelong Democrat who has been active in local party politics. But with barely three weeks before the election, his vote is up for grabs.
“I’m so disillusioned” with Democrats and their candidate, said Lipkin, 71, a retired public school administrator, standing in the doorway of his home in the Sun Valley neighborhood of the northeast suburbs here.
He thinks the Republicans have been better for Israel, and would have preferred Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman get the Democratic nomination rather than Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. Still, Lipkin hasn’t made up his mind.
“I’m looking for a reason to vote for Kerry,” he said. “I’m not sold on Bush.”
Swayable voters like Lipkin, though seemingly rare, are the reason a busload of Democratic volunteers from
New York fanned out among the middle-class homes here last week to hand out pro-Kerry literature and talk about his support for Israel.
Philadelphia and its suburbs are a battleground within a battleground, an area populous enough to tilt the 21 electoral votes of Pennsylvania, one of the most hotly contested states in this election.
The latest poll, by the American Research Group, had Kerry and Bush statistically even in the Keystone State, 48-46 percent respectively, with 1 percent for Ralph Nader and 5 percent undecided. Democrat Al Gore won Pennsylvania by 5 percentage points in 2000.
The lion’s share of the state’s Jewish community of 282,000 is concentrated in Greater Philadelphia, which makes the area a focus of Jewish outreach efforts.
The National Jewish Democratic Council and its counterpart, the Republican Jewish Coalition — groups that support the work of the campaigns but have no official ties — have deployed large field staffs in Pennsylvania. In addition to canvassing, they have launched ad campaigns and presented public debates on the election at community centers and on college campuses.
“This state is very much in play this year,” said Scott Fiegelstein, the RJC’s director in Philadelphia, “and the Jewish community tends to historically come out in significant numbers to vote, and that’s one reason they are so sought after by both parties.” The RJC also has an office in Pittsburgh.
Elderly And Russians Are Key
Pennsylvania’s Jewish community is similar in many respects to New York’s. (In fact there is a growing community of Empire State expatriates in Philadelphia.) It has several thriving Orthodox communities, though none as well organized as its neighbors to the north.
“It’s not like in New York, where the candidates court the Chabad rebbe,” said Burton Siegel, director of community relations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Rabbi Solomon Isaacson of the Beth Solomon congregation in Northeast Philadelphia, a political activist, said Orthodox Jews are “very concerned about Kerry’s position on Israel and what would happen when he gets in.”
Although he supports the Democrat, Rabbi Isaacson said “if the vote were held today in my shul, it would be a close race. There are a lot of Russians who are Republicans.”
Russian-speaking immigrants have poured into the state in recent years, with as many as 30,000 in Philadelphia in recent years, according to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The Jewish community is also increasingly a graying one.
If Russian voters, like the Orthodox, have emerged as Republican oriented and Bush supporters, the elderly — because of traditional loyalty to the Democrats and concern over liberal domestic issues like health-care access — are more likely to favor Kerry.
Alexander Tamarkin, a native of Minsk, Belarus, who recently came to Northeast Philadelphia after several years in Brooklyn, said the war on terrorism made him and other Russian immigrants he knows pro-Bush.
“We need to fight terrorists on their territory, not ours,” said Tamarkin, 33, a registered Democrat who voted for Bush in 2000. In this race, he “does not see in Kerry a strong person like Bush.”
Tamarkin, the owner of an orthopedic footwear company, said he supports social welfare but is more conservative on economic issues.
The state’s senior citizens “tend to be more conservative except on social service issues,” Siegel said.
“They are hawkish on Israel issues. But the question of Social Security, the economy and the state of people’s pensions will matter to people most, as will the question of affordable health care,” he said.
In Harrisburg, the state capital — where Jewish Republicans are less uncommon — seniors gathered Tuesday at the lunchroom of the local Jewish Community Center gave Bush a thumbs-down.
Toby Grant, 84, a lifelong Republican who voted for Bush in 2000, said the president has accomplished little in office.
“He’s all show and no blow,” said Grant, who was sporting a Kerry-Edwards button on her sweater.
She added that Bush “talks a good game and shows me nothing.”
Sylvan Merwitz, 94, said he “hopes to hell [Bush] does get beaten.”
Referring to the Florida controversy in 2000, Merwitz said, “He had no business being in there in the first place. He wouldn’t have been elected if they had counted all the votes.”
Back in Philadelphia, following a pro-Kerry address to a mostly senior crowd at a co-op complex in Center City, Babette Josephs, among the few Jewish members in the state Legislature, said there was a gender divide on issues of concern.
“Men tend to concentrate on Israel as their first priority, while women are more concerned about nurturing issues, like abortion rights and [separation of] church and state,” Josephs said.
Both Bush and Kerry have Jewish friends in high places in Pennsylvania. In Kerry’s case it is Gov. Ed Rendell, a political fixture who was mayor of Philadelphia and later chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
“[Rendell] is a major figure and respected in Jewish communities across Pennsylvania,” said Mark Aronchik, a member of the Kerry-Edwards campaign’s Jewish steering committee in Pennsylvania. “He’s been very aggressive and prominent for the ticket.”
In Bush’s corner is Arlen Specter, one of only two Jewish Republicans in the U.S. Senate. Specter is locked in a bitter re-election bid against Democrat Rep. Joe Hoeffel of Philadelphia after beating back an aggressive primary challenger. A large turnout for Specter may help the president among Jewish Republicans and Democrats who don’t mind crossing over.
Josephs said she has been making the argument that both men could harm each other.
“[Specter] voted with the Bush administration 89 percent of the time when he was running in the primary,” she said. “They couldn’t do what they did without his help.”
No-Shows And Point Men
While the partisan Jewish organizations seem to be working overtime on courting the Jewish vote, the candidates and their running mates have not appeared before Jewish audiences.
“They have both been to Pennsylvania regularly,” said Siegel of the Jewish federation. “Both campaigns have a standing invitation, but for reasons I don’t totally understand they have not availed themselves.”
Former New York Mayor Ed Koch has been a regular surrogate for Bush, and the Democrats have fielded Sens. Charles Schumer and Lieberman, among others. The session at the Philadelphia co-op Monday night featured Kerry, albeit on videotape in an address to the Anti-Defamation League.
The Bush campaign’s Jewish outreach coordinator in Pennsylvania, Steven Friedman, is a lawyer and activist in many Jewish organizations who speaks of his friendship with Israel’s Netanyahu family, having been a classmate of Yoni, the fallen Entebbe commando and older brother of Benjamin, the former prime minister and current finance minister, at Cheltenham High School in Elkins Park.
In an interview in his high-rise law office on Market Street in Center City, Friedman said his work primarily involved “informal getting together” with other supporters, although they are working on an upcoming Koch event.
“My role is to talk to as many people as I can in the Jewish community and emphasize why the president has and should earn our support,” Friedman said. “A lot of it is word-of-mouth meeting, e-mail communication and being present at such events and just talking to people.”
Friedman believes it is possible for Bush to win 35 percent of the statewide Jewish vote, as he did in Florida, but he conceded that “obviously the abortion issue is a sticking point for a lot of people in the community.”
Aronchik of the Kerry campaign’s Jewish committee here said he was trying to reach out to areas of the state that have been hurt by the recession.
“Different parts of the state have felt the economic squeeze on middle and lower class,” said Aronchik, a former Philadelphia solicitor and close ally of Rendell. “There are a great deal of senior citizens who are Jewish, a large number who are middle class and unfortunately a lot of Jews who are poor. Pennsylvania used to be an industrial giant state and now, in a transitional economy, we are losing a lot of manufacturing jobs.”
But it’s unclear who’s still listening at this stage. Both sides concede the number of undecideds is probably low. In interviews this week with Jewish Pennsylvanians, a majority was solidly decided, mostly for Kerry.
Arlene Zafran of Bensalem, north of Philadelphia, said she and her relatives were solidly pro-Kerry because they were concerned about the possibility of a military draft. (Both candidates have said they opposed one.)
Zafran, 51, a public school teacher and member of a Conservative temple, also opposed the president’s faith-based initiatives program and said Bush is “not good as a world leader. What he says is not respected.”
Rabbi Herbert Rosenblum, who wore a Kerry button while dining at Maccabeam, a kosher eatery in Center City, said he was not impressed by Bush’s “pro-Israel activities.”
“He has done what any American president would do,” the rabbi said. “I certainly wouldn’t trust him in a second term.”
Rabbi Rosenblum, who is retired from a pulpit in Wilkes-Barre, said he was confident that Kerry had substantial support in the Orthodox community.
His colleague, Rabbi Sanford Hahn of Germantown, said he was “not impressed by Bush” and predicted that “Jews are going to follow what’s been done in the past” by voting Democrat.
In the Sun Valley canvassing, NJDC volunteer Trudy Mason of Manhattan encountered a Russian family who politely declared themselves pro-Bush and declined to accept any Democratic material.
But on the same block, a man named Carl, a retired firefighter who declined to give his last name, accepted some literature but said, “I don’t believe either [candidate] is being honest,” which he declared his highest priority in selecting a president.
“I may not even vote,” Carl said.
In Harrisburg, Herb Rochman, 83, said it was “unfortunate that we have a choice between two professional career politicians, a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. My inclination is to vote for Ralph Nader, but probably will vote for the lesser of two evils.”