January 31, 2008
So Cal Jews’ primary colors are red and blue
A senior at Beverly Hills High School, he'd spent long hours rallying support for Barack Obama, and as the results from the Iowa caucuses poured in, as fellow Obama supporters packed the presidential candidate's California campaign office in Koreatown, Spitzer-Rubenstein turned jubilant, his enthusiasm mashing together with exhaustion into euphoria.
"Yeah!" he shouted, jumping up and down in a corner where he was hawking T-shirts, bumper stickers and buttons for the Illinois senator. "Obama! Obama! Obama!" he chanted with the crowd. "Fired up! Ready to go! Fired up! Ready to go! Let's go change the world!"
Then his cell phone rang. It was one of the many high school volunteers he oversees as the L.A. teen director.
"Hi, Amy," Spitzer-Rubenstein, 17, said. "So it looks like we did it. It's awesome. You helped make this happen. Yeah, every little bit matters."
One down, 49 to go, which means many more hours of lost sleep for Spitzer-Rubenstein. Far from alone in volunteering for the candidate he thinks holds the key to a better America, Jews are planted throughout most of the presidential front-runners' campaigns, from top advisory levels to grassroots street teams.
So much excitement hasn't surrounded a presidential primary season in 40 years, not since Bobby Kennedy was in the race. And for the first time in at least as long, California's primary will matter. Until now, only six states have cast their votes for party nominations, with Florida's vote Tuesday terminating the campaigns of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Maine's residents will vote Friday and then on Feb. 5, 22 states, including California, Illinois and New York, will go to the polls on what has been dubbed "Super-Duper Tuesday" and "Tsunami Tuesday." Meanwhile, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an Independent and a Jew, continues to play presidential footsie, presumably waiting to see how the field thins.
With the contest still up for grabs -- three Republicans and two Democrats still with a realistic chance of getting their party's nod -- Tuesday's race is expected to determine the ballot for the general election. And already quite a few Jews have been writing checks, working phones or simply spreading their candidate's gospel in an effort to court the deciding votes.
Julie Shapiro, a young lawyer for Universal and volunteer for Hillary Clinton, last week started an effort to get other female lawyers fired up about the New York senator. David Slomovic, a father of three, spent recent Thursday evenings opening his commercial real estate office for phone banking for Giuliani. And Dr. Joel Geiderman, co-chair of the emergency medicine department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and vice chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, has spent his free time encouraging lifelong Democrats to switch sides.
"The two visions of America the parties offer could not be any more different," Geiderman said.
Jews in real estate and Hollywood were quick to get involved, too -- support had been strongest for Clinton and Obama, Giuliani and John McCain -- endorsing early, opening their homes for fundraisers and crisscrossing the country in support.
"We took our family holiday in Iowa this year," said Sony Pictures Chairman and CEO Michael Lynton, who hosted Obama at his home last summer and went with his wife and kids to the Jan. 3 caucuses.
Tonight, MGM chief Harry Sloan will host his second fundraiser for McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona. Obama will attend one at the Avalon. And Hillary Clinton will be at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for a fundraiser organized by the likes of Peter Lowy, Haim Saban, Barbra Streisand and Daphna and Richard Ziman.
"All of us believe this is an absolutely critical election," said Michael Berenbaum, an adjunct professor of theology at American Jewish University. "The last four years of the Bush administration have been disastrous. If we don't get ourselves squared away, it could be the end of the American Century and the end of the way the American Jewish community has been American in this era.
"We are voting as if our lives and futures depend upon it. Not because we fear someone is going to come out and kill us, but because we fear that if we don't get this right, our children and their children will not enjoy the privileges this generation has enjoyed as Americans -- the economic opportunity, the prosperity, the education, all of those elements that have characterized our existence and our flourishing. After Florida in 2000, everybody knows that every vote absolutely counts."
Republican or Democrat? There used to only be one real answer to that. Jews believed in three velts -- Yiddish for "world": die velt (this world), yene velt (the next world) and Roosevelt. And since the New Deal, American Jews have identified so strongly with the Democratic Party that supporting its policies, particularly its domestic agenda, has been part of being Jewish.
"Like most Brooklyn Jews, I was raised a Democrat, voted Democrat for years and years, and believed, absolutely, that Republicans were evil," screenwriter Robert J. Avrech wrote a few years ago for the Jewish Press in an article titled "Help! I'm a Hollywood Republican." "That's what we were taught from birth, right? Democrats are for the poor and the oppressed, and Republicans are for rich people and big corporations. Who questioned such sophisticated political analysis?"
An increasing number of Jews seem to be. Though the proportion voting for a Republican presidential candidate has never been as high as it was in 1956 for President Dwight D. Eisenhower -- 40 percent, according to "Jews in American Politics," (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003) -- the percentage has increased in each presidential election since 1992, going from 11 percent to 16 percent to 19 percent, until finally 24 percent of Jews voted to reelect President Bush in 2004.
"Whether it is the economy or the environment or education or healthcare, we think we are bringing new and fresh ideas to the conversation," Larry Greenfield, state director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said in opening remarks during a debate at Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay with the leader of Democrats for Israel. "There is a broadening of the Jewish conversation as some of your kids and grandkids come home from college and say, 'Mom, Dad, I'm a Republican.'"