Scenes From A Primary Fight
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Scenes From A Primary Fight

As candidates crisscross the area, Jewish voters weigh in on the issues and the tenor of the campaign.

After expressing confidence that New York businessman Donald Trump would “do well with the economy,” Marcia Avila, a Mexican Jew who now lives in Farmingdale, L.I., confessed, “I try not to admit that I am for Trump.”

As she spoke, campaign aides for the Republican presidential frontrunner passed around signs to the 10,000 people who had come to rally for Trump last week in a former Grumman hangar in Bethpage, L.I. The signs read, “The Silent Majority Stands with Trump.”

In the last week, all three Republican presidential contenders and the two Democratic candidates campaigned in the city and Long Island ahead of next Tuesday’s crucial New York primary. It is the first time since 1988 that New Yorkers will play a decisive role in helping to select the presidential candidates.

As Avila, 41, an engineer, waited with her son, Justin, 16, for the rally to start, she said she just hoped Trump “would tone it down a bit.”

“He’s not polished,” she said.

At a town hall meeting with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz last Thursday at the Jewish Center of Brighton Beach, Cathy Wasserman, 53, of the Upper West Side, said she was not upset by Cruz’s negative reference to “New York values” because he had explained that those were the words Trump used in a 1999 television interview to explain his position on things.

“I think he’s brilliant,” she said.

At a roundtable discussion Monday about gun violence in Port Washington, L.I., hosted by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Emma Mogavero, 18, a first-time voter from Jericho, L.I., admitted that “on the issues, I agree with Bernie more than her [Clinton].” But Mogavero said she would be voting for Clinton because Sanders “is more idealistic” and Clinton is the “practical choice.”

“I think Hillary is more qualified for the job and will be taken more seriously by foreign leaders,” she added. “Bernie is so far left that he would not be able to work with Republicans — and I’m not sure about Democrats as well.”

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At the Trump rally, Tina Sufrin, 51, of Holbrook, stood near the press section wearing a small Star of David necklace. She said she has “Jewish roots” and “loves Israel.” Asked about Trump’s equivocal statements about Israel — saying at one point that he is “neutral” on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and later that he is pro-Israel — Sufrin said Trump “needs to amplify his Israel position. … He needs to stay strong on Israel and support [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and not the Palestinians.”

Asked about Cruz, Sufrin, a registered Republican, replied: “I like him. … We need a leader who is going to transform America. Hillary is not a good leader.”

Trump has made building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out illegal immigrants a cornerstone of his campaign. In fact, during the rally the crowd spontaneously broke out into a chant of “Build that wall,” as soon as Trump mentioned illegal immigrants. Moments later he asked the crowd, “Who’s going to build it?” and the crowd shouted in unison, “Mexico.”

“We lose $58 billion in trade deficits [with Mexico] and it is going to cost $10 billion to build the wall,” Trump said. “It’s going to happen.”

Two brothers waving a Trump placard at the event said they “see in him someone who can get the job done.”

“We want freedom of religion and they are trying to turn the country into secular humanism,” said Allan Porter, 21, of Cedarhurst. “He [Trump] has a Jewish daughter and granddaughter, and I think he is overall positive on Israel.”

He added that if Trump is elected, he would expect him to improve U.S.-Israel relations “and silence critics who say America gives too much aid to Israel.”

His brother, Jeffrey, 18, called Trump “a unique candidate.”

“And I like his personality,” he continued. “He’s tough. Obama is too weak to be president. We need a strong president to show who’s boss.”

Jeffrey acknowledged that Trump “has said some stupid stuff … like saying he is going to deport 11 million illegal immigrants. But he was trying to prove a point. He was starting high, but he will negotiate.”

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Texas Sen. Ted Cruz visited the Nahama Children’s Bakery in Brighton Beach, where preschoolers were learning how to make matzah. The Cruz campaign had wanted to visit a real matzah factory, but it proved impossible to find a factory willing to allow the kind of disruption that a Cruz visit — with his accompanying media entourage — would cause just two weeks before Passover, according to Rabbi Mordechai Tokarsky, who helped organize the visit.

At the bakery, Cruz said he has “had a lot of matzah but it has always come in a box.” With the help of Leah Winner and others at the bakery, Cruz then made his own matzah and tasted it when it was removed from the oven.

“Superb,” he said. “It’s better than the box.”

When he was reminded that the seder ends with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem,” Cruz quipped: “Hopefully I will need a bigger plane to get there.”

Rabbi Tokarsky, co-founder and national director of the Russian American Jewish Experience, then walked with Cruz one block over to his synagogue, the Jewish Center of Brighton Beach, for a meeting with about 100 Cruz supporters.

As the son of Cuban immigrants, Cruz said he could identify with many in the room who were Russian immigrants.

“There will always be a Jewish homeland in Israel and we are here to celebrate that homeland and the strong, unbreakable friendship between Israel and America,” he told them.

As those in the room chanted, “Cruz, Cruz, Jews for Cruz,” Cruz recalled hearing Netanyahu’s address to the joint session of Congress last year “that this administration shamelessly boycotted” to warn about the dangers of the Iran nuclear agreement.

“There is a reason for the special and unalterable friendship between America and Israel — they fight for freedom. …. I give you my word that after seven long years of an administration that turns a blind eye and gives a cold shoulder to Israel, after January 20 that will end.”

When someone in the room asked what they should do should they find Clinton and Trump the candidates of the major political parties in November, Cruz quipped: “The first thing we would do is weep.”

He then went on to say that such a thing must be prevented from happening and that Trump’s statement that he would remain neutral about the Israel-Palestinian conflict “represents a lack of understanding. … We are not neutral between police officers and bank robbers — the stakes are too high. If Donald is nominated, Hillary Clinton wins by double digits. … We are fighting district by district, delegate by delegate.”

Cruz added that he is “passionate about school choice — every child has a right to a quality education and to choose their education.”

Among his supporters was Migir Meir Ilganayev, 26, of the Kensington section of Brooklyn.

“He is pro-Israel, anti-establishment and presidential,” he said of Cruz. “I would even say he is overqualified when you compare him with Trump, Sanders or Hillary. Trump just hurts the Republican Party and would give the election to Hillary.”

Ariel Kohane, 45, of the Upper West Side of Manhattan and a Republican district leader, said he has been a “die hard fan [of Cruz] since day one. … He is the most pro-Israel candidate of all.”

He added that Cruz “has a moral compass – more than any other candidate for president in the history of the United States.”

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Back at the Clinton event, a one-hour program on gun violence moderated by Rep. Steve Israel (D-Queens-L.I.), Clinton pointed out that there are 33,000 people who are killed annually because of gun violence.

“A significant majority of American citizens and gun owners want to see common sense gun measures passed,” she said. “What stands in the way is a very powerful gun lobby.”

Clinton noted that her Democratic opponent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, voted against the Brady Bill that restricts gun sales and was signed into law by her husband. And she said she favors lengthening beyond three days the background check conducted on those seeking to buy a gun.

Sanders recently told the Daily News that he opposes allowing families the right to sue gun manufacturers whose weapon was used to kill an innocent civilian. And he has supported gun rights, explaining that his state is rural and that guns are largely used for hunting.

But Clinton countered Monday that most gun violence in New York State is caused by guns imported from other states. And, she added, “the highest per capita number of guns that end up committing crimes in New York come from Vermont.”

Anne Nelson, 70, of Port Washington, L.I., said she believes Clinton is “more competent — I trust her. She has a lot of experience. Bernie has not done as much as she has.”

Alison Bermant, 68, of East Norwich, L.I., expressed less than enthusiastic support of Clinton.

“People I know who are Israel-only voters like [Texas Sen. Ted] Cruz,” she said. “They are single-issue voters and they are very strongly for him. But the Supreme Court [nominations] are key for me. Even though Israel is very high in my mind, I am concerned about Citizens United and other things affecting the state of our democracy.

“I’m concerned about us becoming an oligarchy — and it is a Democrat who can turn that around. I just hope she will be a strong supporter of Israel and that she will understand that Israel needs to decide what’s best for Israel.”

Richard Brody, 64, of Port Washington, L.I., said he supports Clinton because of “her experience and the fact that she is tougher. She can take whatever foreign leaders throw at her.”

He said he found Sanders to have “a lot of rhetoric and no substance — how is he going to pay for free college and no deductible health care?”

Rabbi Alysa Mendelson, 44, of Port Washington, L.I., said that speaking for herself she supports Clinton because of her “intellect and experience. She is savvy and I like the fact she understands the way the establishment works — it will help her get things done.”

Randy Shain, 50, of Port Washington, L.I., said: “Contrary to what most people think, I think she is extremely honest. Everyone is talking about the Wall Street money she takes, but there is no evidence it has influenced her.”

stewart@jewishweek.org

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