Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Oct. 13 to reflect Rabbi Levin’s declaration that he is no longer supporting Paladino.
After Rabbi Yehuda Levin introduced Carl Paladino, in glowing terms, to a few dozen Orthodox Jews gathered in Rabbi Levin’s Flatbush synagogue on Sept. 21, the Republican candidate for governor, impressed with the oratory, decided to open with a joke.
“Michael,” he said with a nod toward his campaign spokesperson, Michael Caputo. “You’re fired.”
In the weeks after the two made each other’s acquaintance, at Rabbi Levin’s initiative, the Ultra-Orthodox crusader against abortion and gay rights quickly became the Buffalo businessman and self-financed political novice’s most trusted adviser in the Jewish community. On October 10, Rabbi Levin again presented Paladino to Orthodox audiences, this time in Borough Park and WIlliamsburg.
The trust Paladino had invested in a man he barely knew was evident when Paladino, as seen in video of the events, awkwardly read a speech from several sheets of paper.
Rabbi Levin, leader of Congregation Mevakshei Hashem in Midwood, said he wrote the entire Borough Park speech, in which the aspiring governor took some shots at a 2009 candidate for City Council he’d likely never heard of before and the political operatives he said duped local rabbis into supporting that candidate. According to the speech, there was no daylight between the candidates on the issue of gay marriage, despite reports to the contrary.
The Williamsburg speech, on which Rabbi Levin said he had input but didn’t write entirely, made national headlines, with its strident tone against homosexuality as “an equal and valid option for a successful life.” Paladino drew the line at saying “there is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual,” a line that was in the prepared text, later saying he did not oppose gays, just gay marriage.
The ensuing firestorm — condemnation from political leaders and gay rights groups and a media feeding frenzy that prevented Paladino from getting his message out — would serve to drive a wedge between Rabbi Levin and Paladino. When the candidate backtracked from the remarks the next day, saying he "should have chosen better words," Rabbi Levin was furious.
"He has been completely co-opted by homosexual militants," Rabbi Levin told The Jewish Week. "He has genuflected in an alarming and comprehensive way.”
And so ended another New York political alliance, a not uncommon event in a realm where loyalties can shift with the winds.
But the fact that a major-party candidate for statewide office would so closely associate himself with Rabbi Levin — who by his own admission does not have substantial following and whose stridency on gay rights and abortion place him on the fringe of even the fervently Orthodox (most of whom usually consider other issues that have a greater impact on their lives) — has many in the Jewish community scratching their heads.
“It seems like Paladino doesn’t know any better,” said one leader of a major Jewish organization, who spoke on condition of anonymitym before the break-up.
Former Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat who has endorsed Republicans before, including Gov. George Pataki, but does not support Paladino, said he was amazed that the candidate could accept a speech written by someone other than a campaign staffer. During his campaigns for local, citywide and state office, he said, no one had attempted to hand him one.
“No one would be so stupid,” said Koch, who most of the time speaks extemporaneously.
“That already shows you how ill-equipped [Paladino] is to be governor, if he walks into a room and just reads [the speech] and comes to a part he didn’t like, so he just didn’t read that part? The whole speech was ridiculous.”
Koch said Rabbi Levin “is not new, he’s been around for 30 years.” He recalled that during a visit he made to the Bobover chasidic sect in 1985, Rabbi Levin — who was challenging Koch’s re-election, and two other men held a ceremony nearby to “excommunicate me, like Spinoza, because I supported gay rights.”
Rabbi Levin was ordained at Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn “around 1989,” he said, and was a disciple of the noted haredi teacher, author and lecturer Rabbi Avigdor Miller, who died in 2001. Rabbi Levin has run unsuccessfully as a Republican and/or Conservative Party candidate for mayor, for Congress against Stephen Solarz and for City Council against Anthony Weiner. In 1996, Rabbi Levin was one of few Jewish supporters of die-hard conservative, Israel-bashing Pat Buchanan, but after the campaign he declined to defend Buchanan against allegations by Jewish leaders of anti-Semitism.
He insists he has never taken “substantial” money from Christian conservative groups who share his agenda, although he occasionally has accepted speaking and travel fees.
He is known for quick recall of dates, names and legislation, but also for sharp, passionate name-calling against those who differ from his agenda.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s gay and lesbian synagogue, recalls that in 2006 Rabbi Levin called her “the greatest living moral terrorist in the world” when the two were on opposing sides of a gay pride gathering in Israel that the rabbi stridently opposed.
“He blasphemes God’s name every time he uses religion to attack gay people,” said Rabbi Kleinbaum Tuesday. “I’m shocked that someone running for governor would use such a hateful person as an adviser.”
Henry Stern, a commentator on public affairs and former parks commissioner in the Koch and Giuliani administrations, said Paladino’s anti-gay focus “gives homophobia a bad name” and hurts his campaign because “if people don’t care much about voting for [Democrat Andrew] Cuomo, they may turn out to vote against Paladino.”
On the other hand, Stern noted, 38 state senators shared Paladino’s opposition to gay marriage when they blocked legislation to allow it late last year.
Coming at a time of heightened discussion of anti-gay bias after the suicide last month of a Rutgers University student whose roommate secretly taped, and then streamed online, his sexual encounter, and following the arrest this week of 10 gang members in the Bronx accused of torturing gay victims, Paladino’s remarks received national coverage, and were promptly denounced by Cuomo.
“Mr. Paladino’s statement displays a stunning homophobia and a glaring disregard for basic equality,” said Cuomo’s spokesman, Josh Vlasto.
Rabbi Levin said Tuesday, a day before they parted ways, that he was unconcerned that the controversy would hurt Paladino, who is already trailing Cuomo in every poll, and was convinced he was coming across as a fiscal and social conservative.
“I have total conviction that this is the best thing to happen to Mr. Paladino,” he said, noting that last week the candidate was weathering bad press for his verbal confrontation with a New York Post reporter. “What we did for him was refocus him on one of his strongest areas. When I sat with him in a car all day, I said he should be giving out candy bags of M&M’s wherever he goes, because [the election is] all about morality and money,” he said, referring to cutting the state budget, not fundraising.
Rabbi Levin said the gay remarks could only cost Paladino votes that would have gone to Cuomo anyway. If it hadn’t happened, “the liberal media would still be going for Cuomo. He came to us and got millions of dollars of free publicity.”