The Second Great Schlep

Team Obama fights for once-solid Jewish vote in South Florida

Barack Obama campaigning in Delray Beach, Florida / AP
October 26, 2012

Team Obama has launched a last-minute bid to court Jewish voters in the once reliably Democratic stronghold of South Florida, according to observers on the ground.

High-profile Obama campaign surrogates have been dispatched to area synagogues and Jewish centers in recent days, raising concern among some who feel that it is unethical—and potentially illegal—for the campaign to use religious centers as sites of political activity.

"The whole ordeal reeks of partisanship and complete desperation from a failing campaign to woo Jewish voters," said Stephen Fiske, chair of the Florida Congressional Committee PAC, a nonpartisan, pro-Israel political action committee. "I understand the Obama administration is desperate to get more Jews in Florida, but I feel they are crossing the line with the multitude of events at synagogues around the state."

The campaign’s full-throttled effort to court a staunchly liberal bloc of voters in a critical swing state could be a sign that Team Obama is worried about losing the Jewish vote, which Obama won in 2008 by a margin of 57 percent, or winning it by a much smaller margin.

"I don’t think there’s anybody who doubts there’s concern," Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, told the Free Beacon.

"They’re losing the state. There’s no question about it," said Stanley Tate, a highly regarded philanthropist and Jewish Republican activist who ignited a firestorm this year when he quit his synagogue in protest over its pro-Obama bent. "They’ve pulled out all the stops. They’re talking all over town."

The next stop on the campaign’s tour through South Florida is Temple Solel in Hollywood where Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz will make an appeal this Sunday on the president’s behalf.

The event has generated a furious reaction from congregants who say it is inappropriate for the synagogue to provide Wasserman Schultz, a sitting member of Congress, a perch from which she can campaign for the president and for herself.

"I and many other members are very upset that you are giving Debbie Wasserman Schultz our Temple to campaign for her reelection a week before Election Day," Alan and Adrienne Fiske, Stephen’s parents, wrote in a recent letter to the board of their temple.

The congregants argue that the event would violate an IRS law barring nonprofit entities from taking political stands. Several other synagogues across the nation came under similar scrutiny earlier this year when they hosted an array of Obama campaign figures.

The Fiskes and other families have threatened to resign if Wasserman Schultz is permitted to speak.

"This is direct violation to our exemption (501c3) and I quote from the IRS Code, ‘which does not participate in, or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office,’" wrote the Fiskes, who have been members of the temple for more than 40 years.

Temple Solel officials dismissed these claims. They cited a pro-Romney appearance on Wednesday evening by Republican Tate as evidence that the shul is providing an equal platform to both parties.

"This is not a debate, just speaking," said Sylvia, a synagogue spokesperson who declined to provide her last name.

The Fiskes disagreed. Tate is a private citizen, they said, while Wasserman Schultz is a high profile member of Congress.

"I could see if she appeared with [her Republican opponent] Karen Harrington on the same evening or after the elections that would be acceptable," they wrote. "But to allow her to speak without any counterpart is totally wrong and violation of our [tax] exemption."

Temple Solel spokesperson Sylvia claims to have received not a single complaint.

"I haven’t heard a thing," she said.

Asked if the temple had invited Wasserman Schultz’s Republican opponent to speak, Sylvia responded, "I don’t know anything about that."

A call to the synagogue’s president, Eric Edison, was not returned.

"The push in the temples is very strong right now," said one Florida Jewish leader who would only speak on background. "They know the only voters they have a chance of converting or re-converting is the Jewish vote. They're very aware of that and aggressive in their efforts."

High-profile Obama surrogates such as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Obama’s Orthodox Jewish chief of staff Jack Lew have become regulars at South Florida senior centers and other Jewish venues.

Wasserman Schultz and Emanuel, for instance, campaigned for the president at the South Palm Beach County Jewish Federation’s senior center in Sunrise, Fla. last week, sources said. Rep. Ted Deutch (D., Fla.) appeared at the Huntington Lakes Development in Delray Beach earlier this week.

Obama himself delivered a stump speech in the Delray area earlier this week and made a stop in Orlando on Monday.

It is unclear if the pitch is resonating.

South Florida’s Jews have been particularly hard hit by the economic recession and tend to prioritize pro-Israel issues more than other voters.

Jewish voters, in venues from Boca Raton to Del Ray Beach and elsewhere, are giving Mitt Romney a second look, activists say.

"I’ve never seen such turnout among Jews," said Alan Bergstein, a 79-year-old GOP activist from Boca Raton. "They appear to be more aggressive now—even among the Democratic Jews who’ve switched over."

The Jewish tide has begun to swing against the Democrats, Bergstein and others maintained.

"It is much different than in past years," he said.

At Jewish centers and synagogues, "I’m getting more nods [of agreement] now than shaking of heads. I’m not getting that negative response."

Obama’s tensions with the Israeli government have become a flashpoint among traditionally liberal Jews.

Longtime Democratic stalwarts such as former New York Mayor Ed Koch and prominent Jewish academic Alan Dershowitz have gone out of their way to chastise Obama for his treatment of Israel.

American Jews living in Israel are also casting their ballots for Romney, the New York Times reported.

A delegation of rabbis recently vocalized their dissatisfaction with the president during a rally in front of the Israeli consulate in Miami in another sign of growing discontent.

"We were there to offer our support to Israel and be critical of the Obama administration’s policies regarding Israel," said Rabbi Sam Intrada, a self-proclaimed "life-long Democrat" who formed the group Real Peace Middle East.

The group has produced a series of web videos that protest Obama’s "one-sided public flogging of Israel," according to Intrada, who identified Obama as "the leader of this movement, this faulty peace process."

Jewish dissatisfaction with Obama could be a sign that the community’s decades-long love affair with the Democratic Party is coming to an end, experts say.

"The Jewish vote has served as a kind of canary" in the coalmine for the Democrats, said Brandeis professor Sarna, who predicted a significant drop in the percentage of Jews who vote for Obama.

"The smart money says the drop will be three-quarters to two-thirds," Sarna said. "I don’t think it’s a surprise; if it’s a drop in that order it would be for the same reason Mr. Obama has had a more difficult time this time than last election."

Sarna, who has written extensively on the American Jewish community, believes the Jewish community is "shifting. In 50 years, the Jewish vote will be much more evenly divided."

Obama is suffering from a lack of enthusiasm among Jews and general voters alike.

Four years ago, Sarna said, "there were people who thought they were voting for the messiah, and four years later, he’s not the messiah."