Upon entering the Loew’s Hotel ballroom in Manhattan last week, some guests at the breakfast of the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty were annoyed that an area surrounding the podium had been roped off, resulting in some tables being moved to the back of the room.
The accommodation was made out of security concerns for Hillary Rodham Clinton, a surprise addition to the list of high profile political figures that annually flock to the event.
But if members of the audience were annoyed at having their seats moved or view obscured, many quickly put aside their resentment after the program, when Clinton lingered in the ballroom for nearly a half hour to greet Met Council staff, lay leaders, honorees and their families.
Initially situated behind a velvet rope, Clinton eventually dislodged it to make it easier to pose for photographs with everyone from Satmar chasidim to the publisher of a Long Island Jewish newspaper and his nephews.
Although she still enters and leaves events through back doors, Clinton has been lowering the barriers around her for several months in an attempt to replace the image of a first lady out of touch with ordinary people with one of the solicitous Senate candidate.
But the number of hands shaken and pictures taken at the Met Council breakfast, together with a series of recent low-profile meetings with prominent Jewish New Yorkers, suggest an awareness that her celebrity status (and a willingness to listen) can go a long way toward winning over critics of her views.
"She is a different person when you meet her face-to-face and get to schmooze with her," says Joel Schnur, a political consultant. "There is none of the imperial White House atmosphere in a one-on-one setting."
A Democrat running statewide has historically needed about three-quarters of the Jewish vote to win, and a large segment of the high-turnout vote is perceived to be up for grabs in this race. Clinton leads Republican Rep. Rick Lazio by a wide margin among Jews, 49-31, according to a Daily News/New York 1 poll.
Among the throng who chatted with the first lady after the Met Council event were Joyce Traina, director of the agency’s home care services; Mark Appel, a breakfast awardee who runs a Brooklyn health care center; and Devorah Halberstam, whose son was killed in the 1994 Brooklyn Bridge shooting.
"She is very personable, and has a one-on-one style," said Traina, who spoke to Clinton about the shortage of home care workers. Appel discussed a plan supported by Clinton to refocus health care away from health maintenance organizations and toward hospital groups. "It flopped because it was premature," said Appel, who gave Clinton his card and discussed a future meeting.
After a plea from Halberstam for intervention in a federal probe, which would determine if terrorists were responsible for Ari Halberstam’s murder, Clinton said, "I have made big concerted push to really have them move on it. I will go back to see if I can do anything to push it again. As a mother I will take that on as a personal cause."
Clinton even accepted some unsolicited campaign advice from Isaac Weinberger, a Satmar chasid who is ubiquitous at political events. Weinberger told Clinton to continue her attacks on Lazio for his willingness to run on the Independence Party ballot line with Pat Buchanan. "This will hurt him in the entire state," said Weinberger. (The Independence Party has since rejected Lazio.)
On Clinton’s political style, Appel said: "She’s following the best in the business: her husband."
But Leonard Guttman, a Republican Jewish activist and official of the Giuliani administration, took a more cynical view. "Most of the people who came up to Hillary for a photo aren’t going to vote for her," he said. "She’s a celebrity, that’s all."
Clinton was less accessible to the public during the Salute to Israel Parade Sunday, where the streets were lined with both volunteers solicited by her campaign and denouncers who called her a "Hamas supporter" and "PLO butt-kisser."
Aharon Friedman, a student at Harvard Law School who sprinted along the parade route adjacent to Clinton, shouting and distributing fliers, said the first lady "as head of the New World Foundation in the 1980s … funneled money to the PLO even before it entered the Oslo process and while it was clearly committed to the destruction of Israel."
Surrounded by leaders of the Jewish Community Relations Council, Israeli Consul General Shmuel Sisso, Knesset member Dalia Itzik, numerous local pols, and a large press contingent, Clinton likely did not see many of the protests, which were reported heavily in the media.
But Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said she had no regrets: "She’s looking forward to doing it next year."
Lazio marched alongside Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and James and Merryl Tisch, the presidents of UJA-Federation and Met Council, respectively.
The decision by Bronx Democratic leader Roberto Ramirez to withdraw his endorsement of Rep. Eliot Engel and back primary insurgent Larry Seabrook is being seen by some as nothing less than an attack on Jewish political power in New York City.
Some interpret the move as endorsing Seabrook’s claim that only minority leaders should represent minority areas: an idea that could cost numerous Jewish incumbents their jobs it if caught on.
"This is very dangerous," said one well-known Democratic official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "If this kind of thing starts, there may very well be sharp reaction from Jewish leaders."
The development, unprecedented in recent memory, poses a particularly thorny problem for Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, who is seeking a broad coalition of Jewish and minority support for his mayoral campaign: in which Ramirez figures prominently.
While Ferrer marched alongside Engel in Sunday’s parade, a spokesman, John Melia, said he is remaining neutral in the congressional primary. "Mr. Ferrer and Assemblyman Ramirez do not always agree," said Melia.
The fate of exiled Lebanese Christians who aided Israel is becoming a local cause celebre. City Council Speaker Peter Vallone and Councilman Herbert Berman (D-Brooklyn), chair of the City Council’s Jewish Study Group, held a press conference last week calling attention to relief efforts.
The U.S. government is doing everything it can to secure the release of 13 Iranian Jews on trial for espionage, wrote President Clinton in a letter to State Sen. Seymour Lachman (D-Brooklyn). "I personally raise the issue with any head of state I feel can be of help in this matter," wrote Clinton.
Leaders of the American Jewish Congress Metropolitan Region joined Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin (D-Queens) Monday at a rally in Flushing calling for stricter gun control measures in response to the recent massacre at a Queens Wendy’s restaurant. AJCongress sponsored a "Stop The Guns, Protect Our Kids" petition drive last fall to demand that Congress pass "meaningful anti-gun legislation."