US presidential race 2020

In US election to be won on margins, Modern Orthodox Jews may be key demographic

Subset represents rare group in American Judaism that doesn’t overwhelmingly vote for either party; residency in swing states could give it outsized influence come November

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

An attendee wears a 'Make America Great Again' kippah before US President Donald Trump speaks at an annual meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition on April 6, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP/John Locher)
An attendee wears a 'Make America Great Again' kippah before US President Donald Trump speaks at an annual meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition on April 6, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP/John Locher)

WASHINGTON — Dozens of black yarmulkas peppered the White House South Lawn at the September 15 signing of the normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and between Israel and Bahrain. After the historic peace deals were duly signed, the Orthodox witnesses there made fresh history by regathering for a mincha afternoon prayer service.

While previous Middle East peace-signing confabs that were hosted by Democratic administrations welcomed similar numbers of Jews, these Modern Orthodox men are arguably an apt representation of the currently COVID-afflicted US President Donald Trump’s Jewish supporters.

Modern Orthodox Jews have outsized visibility not only in pro-Israel crowds at White House events, but also within the administration itself. Members of the community, whose religious orientation falls between the Conservative denomination and the more stringent traditional-Orthodox world, have been appointed to posts such as senior White House adviser, peace envoy and US ambassador to Israel.

Despite the optics, however, those familiar with the small subset of roughly 300,000 US Jews caution against drawing conclusions from the South Lawn crowd regarding the movement’s broader voting patterns. Experts say Modern Orthodox voters are actually far more diverse than those Jews in denominations to the left and right.

If that weren’t enough, most of these Jews are concentrated in swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. As a result, Modern Orthodox Jews become a demographic to watch in the runup to November, with both major US parties seeking to expand their support beyond traditional boundaries.

‘The biggest little tent in Judaism’

Studying the US Jewish vote at the macro level can very easily lead one to write off the demographic as comfortably tucked in the Democratic Party’s pocket. Trump lamented as much during a phone call with American Jewish leaders last month. “The Democrats get 75 percent [of the Jewish vote], sort of like habit. It’s automatic.”

The large Reform and Conservative movements, as well as denominationally unaffiliated Jews, all overwhelmingly back Democrats. Meanwhile, ultra-Orthodox Americans largely support Republican politics.

But where does this leave Modern Orthodoxy?

A January 2020 survey regarding Orthodox political views from the Nishma Research institute found that 53% of Modern Orthodox Jews identify as Democrat, liberal, progressive or left-leaning compared to 37% who describe themselves as Republican, conservative, right-leaning or libertarian.

US President Donald Trump speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting at The Venetian Las Vegas on April 6, 2019, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images/AFP)

The numbers were starkly different for ultra-Orthodox or “Haredi” Americans, 65% of whom identified as right-leaning compared to 20% who preferred a left-leaning classification.

Half a year later, Nishma’s June 2020 survey showed presidential voting preference among Modern Orthodox Jews slanted 70-30 in favor of Democratic nominee Joe Biden. However, the study was conducted before the signing of US-brokered normalization agreements, which Nishma Research president Mark Trencher speculated might have shifted some voters in Trump’s favor.

As a possible explanation for the overall leftward lean of the Modern Orthodox, Trencher pointed to additional 2015 polling data from the Pew Research Institute that found roughly 40% of the subset’s members to be ba’alei teshuva — those who adopt a fully observant lifestyle after having been raised not religious.

Nishma Research institute president Mark Trencher. (Nishma Research)

“When [those ba’alei teshuva] are asked if there’s anything that they do hang on to [once they start leading a more religious lifestyle], they say ‘liberal political views,'” Trencher said.

But the pollster cautioned against generalizing regarding Modern Orthodox political leanings.

“It’s the biggest little tent in Judaism. Ideologically it’s very wide, but in terms of size it’s rather small,” Trencher said.

Those on the more liberal end of the movement share views similar to their non-Orthodox brethren, while people on the more conservative flank of the movement share more in common politically with ultra-Orthodox Jews, he said. However, that latter group of Modern Orthodox Jews “are more likely to leave” the “modern” movement for strands further to the right, Trencher added, perhaps helping explain the leftward tilt of the subset as a whole.

Trencher, who is Modern Orthodox himself, said that while the movement may be more diverse as a whole, “the synagogues themselves tend to be rather homogenous.”

“It would not surprise me to see an entire synagogue support a Republican presidential candidate even if it goes against the overall data, because we gravitate toward people with the same views,” Trencher said.

This notion of synagogues voting along party lines met pushback elsewhere. Maharat Ruth Balinsky of the Ohev Shalom Modern Orthodox synagogue in Washington insisted that “you can’t assume a shul is completely Democrat or completely Republican. It speaks to the general identity of Modern Orthodoxy, whose members find themselves in both the religious and secular worlds.”

The female Orthodox religious leader acknowledged that this balancing act can make for complicated synagogue-wide conversations.

Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman. (courtesy)

“It makes discussing politics in shul very difficult,” Balinsky said. She said that during the first Friday night service at her synagogue after the 2016 election, she decided to simply recognize the concerns felt by many of her members as a result of Trump’s victory.

“A few people felt I was picking sides,” Balinksy said. “But it’s very hard knowing that you have so many people in your community who are in pain and shock and not addressing it. On the other hand, there are also those who feel differently.”

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Modern Orthodox Boca Raton Synagogue echoed Balinksy’s point regarding the sensitive role politics can play in the community.

“Though we seem to say this with each election, this cycle seems to be polarizing more than ever. People are so adamant in their positions, they struggle to maintain relationships with people who think or vote differently,” he lamented.

Still, the Florida rabbi has not sought to avoid the subject altogether.

“We have hosted several presidential candidates at our shul in the past and while some question the wisdom or judgment of introducing politics into a shul, I believe that if we want our voices heard and we seek to influence policy, there is no greater way than inviting the discussion into the community itself,” Goldberg said.

From macro to micro

Addressing the common assumption that Jews as a whole overwhelmingly vote Democrat, Brandeis University professor and American Jewish history scholar Jonathan Sarna said that those who subscribe to it are missing broader trends among Jewish voters, particularly Orthodox ones.

Prof. Jonathan Sarna in an interview following a lecture hosted by the Jewish Federations of North America at Jerusalem’s Beit Avichai, on May 28, 2017. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

“A very important change has taken place over the last half-century,” he said, comparing the 1964 presidential election, when Republican Barry Goldwater received roughly 10% of the Jewish vote, to more recent elections where Republican candidates have received between 25% and 35% of the Jewish vote.

“That would mean bedrock Republicanism has tripled over the last 50-60 years,” he added, crediting the shift to Haredi and Modern Orthodox Jews in particular.

Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks said that his group is realistic in recognizing that Trump won’t be able to receive the vast majority of the Jewish vote come November. But he is confident that Trump would be able to build on the 24% of the Jewish vote that he won in 2016, asserting that crossing the 30% mark may prove key to victory in a close election.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition (Courtesy)

“We don’t need a majority. [Republican Florida Governor Ron] Desantis won [the 2018 election] by less than 40,000 votes, thanks in no small part to the Jewish community,” Brooks said.

“Because we see a clear correlation between the level of one’s religious observance with the likelihood that they’ll vote Republican, Orthodox Jews are absolutely among those we’ll be targeting to come out for the president,” Brooks said.

He did not differentiate between strands of Orthodoxy, but said that the propensity of the movement’s members to live in swing states such as Florida, along with their tendency to vote in higher numbers than other subgroups, gives them outsized influence on election day.

Building on that point, Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, told AFP in an interview last week that the coming election is “about margins, and it’s about margins in key swing states.”

As OU-affiliated synagogues overwhelmingly identify as Modern Orthodox, Diament said the denomination is the most swing-prone in the faith.

Illustrative: Children sitting at the Park East Synagogue, a Modern Orthodox congregation in New York City, March 3, 2017. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images, via JTA)

One-issue voters?

Diament said that views of Biden among Orthodox Jews tend to skew more positive than those on Hillary Clinton in 2016. However, “on the other hand, Trump has a record to run on” when it comes to the specific issues that appeal to the Jewish voters the president’s team wants to court.

At the top of those issues is Israel.

Officials from both parties insisted to The Times of Israel that the Orthodox voting bloc is not a monolith, and that a variety of matters can sway its members’ decision at the polls. These include the economy, school choice, the rise of anti-Semitism, and the recent protests against racial injustice. However, Modern Orthodox community leaders said that Israel still carries outsized importance for their members.

“In the Modern Orthodox world, Israel is the prime issue that people vote on more than anything else, so people will generally vote for who they think will be the most supportive of Israel,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the CEO of the OU kosher certification agency.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and then-US president Barack Obama reach out to shake hands during a joint press conference at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, March 20, 2013. (Saul LOEB/AFP)

This is likely due to the fact that Zionism is seen as a central part of the faith. Seventy-nine percent of Modern Orthodox view caring about Israel as an essential part of being Jewish, according to the 2015 Pew survey. This attachment is significantly stronger than what was expressed by Conservative Jews (58%), ultra-Orthodox Jews (45%) and Reform Jews (32%).

But Genack clarified that caring about Israel does not automatically lead Modern Orthodox Jews to vote Republican.

“Many believe that what Israel needs is a strong America that is respected around the world, and if they think basic alliances are being harmed by this president, they may choose to vote Democrat,” he said.

Biden can make the case for his own record on US-Israel relations, which has included personal relationships with every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir. The former vice president has steered clear of the proposals critical of the Jewish state that some of his Democratic primary rivals had offered.

But even for those who still see Israel as the primary issue, it may not be the “deciding” factor at the ballot “if both of the candidates are seen to have relatively strong records” on the Jewish state, Genack argued.

Halie Soifer heads the Jewish Democratic Council of America. (Courtesy of JDCA)

And, according to Jewish Democratic Council of America’s executive director Halie Soifer, that may just be the case. She claimed that “there’s not a huge disparity between the two candidates when it comes to Israel.”

“Jews trust Joe Biden when it comes to Israel, so they’re voting on other matters where there’s the biggest discrepancy between the two candidates,” she said. She highlighted Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the rise of anti-Semitism as other decisive issues for Jewish voters.

For Republican Jewish Coalition head Brooks, there is no equivalency. He asserted Trump’s record on Israel — recognizing Jerusalem as Israel capital, moving the US embassy there, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and unveiling an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan widely regarded as more sympathetic to the Jewish state than any previous proposal — places him in a league above Biden.

Moreover, Brooks argued, the president’s brokering of normalization deals between Israel and two of its Arab neighbors “chips away at a broader Democratic narrative that paints Trump as incapable.”

But while not diminishing the importance of Israel to Modern Orthodox voters, Boca Raton Rabbi Goldberg suggested that for those in his community and others like it, the calculus might be slightly different.

Boca Raton Synagogue Rabbi Efrem Goldberg. (Twitter)

“For those for whom Torah is the ultimate guide and authority, it is extremely challenging to try to reconcile what feels like Torah values in policies with anti-Torah behaviors in character,” he said without specifying either candidate by name.

“For some, this election comes down to which they think the Torah cares more about. In some ways that is an oversimplification as character impacts policy, but I do believe that tension and conflict are there, even for those who are prepared to pinch their nose and vote in either direction in this election,” Goldberg added.

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