Boca Raton, Fla. — Rosita Bard, a retired accountant from Lake Worth, came to a Republican Jewish Coalition training session at the Rascal House here two weeks ago and was clearly glad to meet fellow Jewish Republicans.
“Everybody I know is for anybody but Bush,” she said. “And they are so hostile. … I’m afraid to tell people I’m Republican. When I do, they say they can’t believe I’m Jewish.”
Bard, 67 and a native of Honduras, said she is “afraid to put anything on my car that says Bush-Cheney because we have friends who had their car scratched and the Bush-Cheney bumper sticker ripped off. And it happened in the parking lot of a synagogue in Delray Beach! I can’t believe this is going on.”
While waiting to hear Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) speak on behalf of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, Sylvia Zipper of Boca Raton said she has witnessed similar things — against Kerry supporters.
“They put Bush bumper stickers on top of Kerry stickers, and I’ve heard of cars with Kerry bumper stickers being keyed,” said Zipper, 79, referring to the scratching of cars with keys. “And when people put out Kerry lawn signs, they are pulled out and replaced with Bush signs.”
Jews are not alone in their visceral reactions to this campaign. A lawn sign spotted in Highland Beach two weeks ago read “Christians Against Kerry.”
With an estimated Jewish population of as many as 700,000, Florida is seen as pivotal in next week’s election. The latest polls show Kerry and Bush tied here.
Bush won the state by only 537 votes four years ago in an election that would be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the GOP is making a concerted effort to woo Jewish voters in the belief that they will have better success this time.
And it is within the Jewish community that passions are flying.
Jillian Inmon, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Florida, said she has never seen the level of animosity now being exhibited among Jews over a presidential election.
“There’s almost a new anti-Semitism within the Jewish community because of the lack of tolerance” for each other’s views, said Inmon, who headed Bush’s campaign here four years ago.
“This type of thing — hatred and intolerance — shouldn’t exist in the Jewish community. … It happened to Jews in Poland and Germany in the 1940s, it shouldn’t exist in the Jewish community in Boca and Fort Lauderdale in 2004,” she said.
Inmon said Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000 was not punctuated by the animosity that marks this year’s race because the level of support he enjoyed among Jews four years ago was not as great as it is today.
Nationally, Bush garnered 19 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000. That figure was better than the 11 percent his father amassed in 1992 but shy of the average of about 30 percent picked up by other Republican presidential nominees.
Bush’s growing Jewish support this year was evidenced by the number of Jews who showed up for the RJC training session, which was designed to inform them of the Republican platform and Bush’s policies. The room was set up for about 50 people; nearly twice that number came.
Bush’s campaign message to Jews in Florida: “Vote your conscience, not your history.” And the Jewish Outreach of the Boca Raton Republican Club last week held a discussion titled “Election 2004: the Jewish Voter is Thinking Republican.”
Although Bush’s support among Jews has clearly increased, Inmon said in an interview that discretion is still advised. She pointed out that a Jewish supporter carrying a tote bag inscribed with the RJC’s name and logo was recently “kicked out of her mah jongg game.”
Not only are friends and neighbors split on the issue, but some couples also are of different minds.
“I’m a Democrat and my husband is a Republican and we have playful fights,” said Elaine Siegell, 59, an executive assistant from Boca Raton. “I don’t like Bush. I don’t think we should be in a war and our boys being killed. My husband was pro the war. You should see us at dinner with friends. … My daughter thinks I’m crazy because she is pro-Bush.”
But she said another daughter and son favor Kerry.
Siegell said she occasionally sends pro-Kerry e-mails to her husband and pro-Bush daughter, and “they scream at me and tell me I’m blind.”
Family Torn Apart
It can also get intense in the Lebauer household in Delray Beach. Sally, 69, a retired schoolteacher, supports Kerry while her husband, Gene, 73, a retired butcher, is for Bush.
“We watched all the debates together and neither one of us was allowed to make a comment,” Sally Lebauer said after she and her husband watched a debate between Kerry and Bush supporters at the auditorium of their Huntington Pointe retirement community.
Gene Lebauer pointed out that his daughter is a lesbian who is strongly anti-Bush.
“My daughter said to me that if you vote for Bush, you are voting against me,” he recalled, pointing out that Bush favors a constitutional amendment that would ban homosexual marriages.
Gene Lebauer added, “Kerry frightens me. I think he’s inexperienced and can’t be commander-in-chief. … I believe we had to go into Iraq and that Bush is one of the best presidents in support of Israel.”
Sally Lebauer said she is against the war in Iraq and that Bush is “trying to focus on Iraq more than he should be.”
“He should be focusing on Afghanistan,” she said. “I think Kerry will do a fine job with Israel.”
At the nearby Glick’s Kosher Market, Madeleine Federman, the catering coordinator, was praising Kerry and criticizing Bush when the cashier, Danny Wolf, asked: “Do you think someone in this store is going to vote for Bush?”
“There are some nuts,” replied Dorothy Stern, 82, of Delray Beach as she paid for her groceries.
Fervent anti-Bush sentiment was heard as well over breakfast following the morning minyan at B’nai Torah Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Boca Raton.
“I’m tired of seeing his Christian face on TV,” said Julie Risisky, 54, a retailer from Deerfield Beach. “He seems to be specifically Christian. I have no problem with faith, but I have a problem with your faith coming into my face. They are hitting me over the head with it and with their position on stem cell research — and I’m pro-choice.”
“I’m working as a volunteer for Kerry,” she added. “I am anti-Bush. I would have voted for [Ralph] Nader if I had no choice.”
As Election Day approaches, some Bush supporters confessed that they have had second thoughts.
Jerry Stein, 72, a retired jeweler from Boca Raton, said he had been planning to vote for Bush because of Bush’s strong support for Israel.
“But then I talked to people — I know a couple who are high up in the Kerry camp — and they said Kerry will look after Israel,” Stein said, adding that he now plans to vote for Kerry.
“Bush did a terrible thing by destroying the middle class,” Stein said. “There are no jobs, except if you want to work in Burger King or McDonalds.”
Still unsure of his support for Bush is Robert Glaser, 72, an accountant from Boca Raton. Sitting around the dining room table at the Boca Raton home of Gail Levine, Glaser initially said, “I’m from the old school: You never bash the commander-in-chief. … I’m a little disappointed with Kerry because of his Vietnam protests.”
On the other hand, Glaser said he believes Kerry did his duty by serving in the military and that Bush’s father “pulled a few strings” to keep his son in the National Guard and from flying missions overseas. And he said “Bush made me feel unsure about him” in his debates with Kerry.
“I’m wavering a little,” Glaser finally confessed.
Caryl Bernstein, 48, a business consultant from Delray Beach, said she is a lifelong Democrat who likes Kerry.
“I truly believe that Kerry cares about the middle class, about health care, prescription drugs for senior citizens, education and the unemployed,” she said while munching on a pizza in Levine’s home. “I think Bush cares very much about keeping us safe, but he is ignoring all of the other issues in the United States.”
But another person at Levine’s home, Shirley Finkelstein, 82, a retired bookkeeper from Delray Beach, said she was a Democrat while living on Long Island but that she switched allegiances, much to the chagrin of some friends, after meeting an ardent Republican in Florida seven years ago.
“I spoke on the phone a couple of days ago with a very dear friend and I told her I was voting for Bush. She said, ‘A Jewish girl and you’re voting for Bush? I can’t talk to you about this,” Finkelstein said. “A Jewish girl shouldn’t vote for Bush.’ ”
Finkelstein said she was not happy with Kerry’s criticism of the Vietnam War after he left the military.
“How can you trust him?” she asked. “Even if it was true, he shouldn’t have done that. That was anti-American. He should have kept his mouth shut.”
Levine said that when the campaign started she was “anti-Bush; now I’m pro-Kerry.” She said both candidates would work equally to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks and that she is focusing instead on “issues that affect the soul of this country, like the Patriot Act. It needs to be amended so that it is able to deal with dangerous criminals without limiting the rights of honest American citizens.”
She also questioned how Bush could be for protecting the unborn because of the sanctity of life and at the same time favor the death penalty.
“If you value life, you value everybody’s life,” Levine said.
But as retired lawyer Paul Berlant, 80, sat at a table after running on a treadmill at the Boca Pointe Country Club, he said he would be voting for Bush. He explained that his three main concerns are terrorism, security and Israel, and that Bush is “doing what has to be done.”