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Jewish Republican Lee Zeldin in a Tight Race on Long Island
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Jewish Republican Lee Zeldin in a Tight Race on Long Island

A close association with Trump may undermine support for a pro-Israel stalwart.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) speaks at the 2019 Teen Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Marriott Marquis in Washington, D.C. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr Commons)
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) speaks at the 2019 Teen Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Marriott Marquis in Washington, D.C. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr Commons)

Mara Gerstein, a resident of East Hampton, NY., has been following Lee Zeldin, the Jewish Long Island Republican representing New York’s first congressional district, since 2016.

“As a Jewish person, you might expect Zeldin to represent the Jewish community’s best interests,” said Gerstein, who attends a local nondenominational synagogue. “But it’s become increasingly clear to me that the image [Zeldin] presents to his constituents is very different from his voting record.”

Gerstein points to Zeldin’s votes against gun safety measures like enhanced background checks, against environmental protections and in support of repealing the Affordable Care Act.

In other words, Zeldin, one of two Jewish Republicans in Congress, votes like a Republican. Since being elected to the House in 2014, Zeldin has one of the most conservative voting records in the New York delegation.

That record has left him vulnerable in the First, to which he was reelected in 2018 with just a four-point margin over Perry Gershon.

Despite his appeal to Jewish voters, he finds himself neck and neck with his opponent, newcomer Nancy Goroff, who in the most recent poll leads 48-46% — a tie within the margin of error. Last month, presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden endorsed Goroff, drawing national attention to the district, which includes eastern Suffolk County.

Zeldin’s close alignment with the Trump administration has given Long Island Jewish voters pause, say community leaders and locals.

“One-issue voting on any issue is a fantasy,” said Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, spiritual leader of the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons. “The narrative that ‘Jews support Zeldin because of Israel’ is not accurate.’”

“People are very aware of the lack of a meaningful social safety net here in America,” said Rabbi Uhrbach, adding that her congregants are “exceptionally engaged and energized” about the House race. “An overall concern about the direction our country has taken is motivating our community more than ever before.”

Zeldin has long represented himself as a voice on Jewish national and international interests, often taking the party’s lead on Israel issues. He has been vocal in denouncing freshman congresswoman Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota Democrat who has been accused of using anti-Semitic tropes.

Riding the president’s coattails may have been advantageous in previous elections, but that is not the case right now.

Aware of a rising blue tide in his district, Zeldin has been tacking to the center. JTA noted in August that Zeldin has been working closely with New York Democrat Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who was ousted in a primary by a progressive challenger. Zeldin was one of four other House members to launch the bipartisan Black-Jewish caucus. He has recently boasted about working with colleagues across the aisle.

Goroff, who is on leave from her position as chairwoman of Stony Brook University’s chemistry department, has nonetheless underscored Zeldin’s close ties with the Trump administration to rally voters.

“Nancy Goroff is a scientist and educator who will make her decisions based on facts and science,” Mr. Biden said in a statement issued by Goroff’s campaign last month.

“Together, we’re going up against Donald Trump and his most ardent defender, Lee Zeldin,” Goroff said in an email to supporters last month. “Our names, along with our next vice president Kamala Harris’s, will be at the top of the ticket — and winning in suburban swing districts like ours is crucial in the fight to end the far-right’s war on science.”

Neither the Zeldin nor Goroff campaigns returned requests for interviews.

Nancy Goroff, a chemistry professor at Stony Brook University, is hoping to unseat Rep. Lee Zeldin, the Jewish Republican representing eastern Long Island. (Courtesy)

In previous years, Zeldin’s close alignment with the Trump administration might have given him a leg up among conservative Long Island voters, but this year that is far from certain, said Rabbi Marc Schneier, founding rabbi of The Hamptons Synagogue.

“Riding the president’s coattails may have been advantageous in previous elections, but that is not the case right now,” said Rabbi Schneier. “The President running behind Biden in recent polls is going to have a negative impact on Zeldin’s re-election campaign.”

Still, Schneier, who noted that Zeldin is a “dear friend” and frequenter of The Hamptons Synagogue, said his congregants are “sophisticated and can bifurcate between Zeldin and Trump,” noting that he knows of many community members supporting Biden for president and Zeldin for Congress.

For conservative lobbying groups, the Zeldin-Goroff race is a priority. His campaign has also been overwhelmingly supported by pro-Israel PACs, notably the Republican Jewish Coalition PAC and the Pro-Israel America PAC, according to election data.

“There is no more important voice in the House running in a tight race this election than Lee Zeldin,” said Matthew Brooks, national executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, whose PAC is one of Zeldin’s top campaign contributors. “He is on the frontlines of standing up for Israel and combating anti-Semitism.”

Brooks also noted Goroff’s association with the liberal Jewish Mideast policy group J Street, which is supporting her campaign.

“It will be a deafening loss for the Jewish community if he [Zeldin] is defeated in this election,” said Brooks, who said he believes Zeldin’s close relationship with President Trump is a “net positive” among Jewish voters.

For Barbara Braun, a septuagenarian and long-time Long Islander, her support for Zeldin as an advocate for Israel and the Jewish community remains steadfast.

“I think he’s focused and brilliant and very dedicated to the wellbeing of Long Island and the Jewish community,” said Braun, 70, who acknowledged that her opinion has becoming increasingly “unpopular” and difficult to voice.

“He is a solid supporter of Israel and has contributed to tremendous forward motion towards peace in the middle east,” said Braun, a long-time community benefactor and a trustee of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons.

“For me, preservation of peace in the middle east is a defining thing. If that were all that would be enough, dayenu.” Amid an increasingly diverse voter base in Long Island, she said she is among the “silent majority” of Jewish voters who will continue to support Zeldin.

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