American Orthodoxy

The Modern Orthodox Vote and the Episcopalian Turn

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Zev Eleff

On October 31, 2016, Rabbi Menachem Genack ventured into “enemy territory.” Careful to speak for no organization or no one but himself, the OU Kosher CEO participated in a pre-election debate in Brooklyn. A well-known supporter and confidant of the Clintons, there was little question in anyone’s mind that Rabbi Genack would make the most of the opportunity to support the Democratic Party’s presidential hopeful. Sure enough, the mild-mannered rabbi offered a smattering of facts and a number of well-reasoned arguments to explain why Orthodox Jews ought to vote for Hillary Clinton. For this, the audience heckled and hollered. Some reportedly walked out in protest.

This is the sort of episode that convinced pundits to fear and prognosticators to predict that Trump was bound to receive the lion’s share of the Orthodox vote. Upon the Trump victory, prominent sociologist Samuel Heilman pointed out the political proclivities of other rabbinic leaders—from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin to Rabbi Avrohom Levin—to demonstrate the politically conservative leanings of America’s Orthodox Jews and to question whether a more open-minded, liberally-driven Modern Orthodoxy has a future in the United States. Elsewhere, the same scholar offered Orthodox-leaning newspapers’ endorsements of Donald Trump as further proof of Orthodox political conservatism.

What can account for this? According to Heilman, the supposed Orthodox embrace of the Republican Party has much to do with day school education: “Over time, the religious and moral instruction to which the Orthodox have been exposed—from their rabbis and yeshiva or seminary teachers—comes from the haredi wing of their movement, and not from the center or left.” In other words, the Orthodox Right has influenced more than a generation of Modern Orthodox children, steering them to grow up “right wing,” religiously and politically. Similarly, concludes Heilman, to other traditionalist faith communities like the Catholics, for instance.

That Orthodox Jews seem to have leaned toward the Republican candidate probably should not surprise Heilman. In a book he coauthored with Steven M. Cohen in the late 1980s, the two scholars found that Orthodox Jews—mostly New Yorkers, in this limited study—tended to side with politically conservative points of view. Heilman and Cohen found that this was particularly true for issues that could be informed by Jewish law—say, like abortion or homosexuality—but it was also evident in politically charged cases like affirmative action and the death penalty which have little or no bearing on Halakhah. More recently, the 2013 Pew Research Center report on American Jews indicated that 57 percent of Orthodox Jews are more GOP-inclined; a remarkable but unsurprising contrast to 70 percent of the overall American Jewish population that are basically in concert with the Democratic Party’s planks and platforms.

Still, there is no hard evidence to prove how Orthodox Jews voted last November, in an election that defied all precedents and political procedures. To throw some light on the whole issue, I contacted more than sixty Modern Orthodox day schools, asking them back in October, when Clinton was still very much the frontrunner, to share mock election results with me. The idea started to percolate in 2012, when I served as a teacher at Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts. Despite overwhelming statewide support for President Barack Obama, three-quarters of the high school student body at Maimonides penciled in Gov. Mitt Romney on their theoretical ballot. The results, I observed, could not have been swayed by “right wing” teachers. First, most educators at the school could not be classified as such. Second, the vast majority of my colleagues happily refrained from relating political judgments and opinions to their students. The same impression was confirmed at Shalhevet High School. Students enrolled in this Los Angeles school also heavily favored Romney. Some teens told a student reporter that they were influenced by Obama’s strained relationship with Israel, the rocky economy, and because “this school has a lot of people that are wealthy,” explained one freshman. “Romney is for the wealthy people.”

My premise, then, was that day schoolers would vote according to the messages transmitted to them at home. The results of this modest 2016 study appear to confirm the widely held supposition that Modern Orthodox Jews by and large voted for the Republican nominee. More important, perhaps, is what this research tells us about the sources of this voting behavior. At least for the 2016 presidential election, the Trump vote emanated from the home while the day school remained timid and neutral. Perhaps, then, the trouble with Orthodox schools is not that it pushes its students rightward: It’s that it doesn’t push much at all.

The Orthodox Turn to the Republican Party?

In October 1980, Rabbi Bernard Weinberger of the Young Israel of Brooklyn anticipated that his congregants and most other Orthodox Jews would soon be casting their vote for President Jimmy Carter, the White House’s Democrat incumbent. “A large segment of the Jewish community,” he reckoned, “is so inexorably linked to the Democratic Party it still sees itself voting for Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy when they pull the Democratic lever.” This troubled Weinberger, who violated his own code of rabbinic conduct when he so publicly supported the Republican nominee, Governor Ronald Reagan.

There exist no reliable figures on Orthodox voting patterns before 1980, save for the Hasidic enclaves that received strict instructions to vote Democrat. As one pundit put it back in 1978: “There is no reporter on any of the major papers who really has ever stopped to analyze the Orthodox vote.” They were just not that significant of a voting bloc. There is no reason, though, to suppose that the Orthodox mainstream varied much from the rest of American Jewry. Just like most Americans, the Orthodox Union hailed Kennedy’s 1960 presidential victory, even offering a prayer that JFK “receive Divine guidance in the performance of his tasks, and may he bring to our country and all countries the leadership for which mankind thirsts.” The OU even constructed an argument for why Judaism supports Kennedy and the Democratic Party. In the nineteenth century, America’s Jews debated whether or not someone should vote like a Jew or an American (when the two contradicted) in the ballot box. A hundred years later, it was altogether clear that Jews—Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike—should pull the lever as one unified whole: as a Jewish Democrat. Four years later, Hunter College political scientist and ever-astute Orthodox observer, Marvin Schick, published an essay in the same OU publication, warning his coreligionists about some of the policies and political associations held by the Republican candidate, Sen. Barry Goldwater, though he admitted that he hardly needed to fear, as so many of his readers “have been identified with the Democratic Party.”

Consider, as well, surveys reported in the Yeshiva College student newspaper. From 1948 to 1976, male undergraduates voted overwhelmingly Democrat. In 1952, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s heroics in World War II were not nearly enough to sway Yeshiva Collegians. They supported Gov. Adlai Stevenson by a 16-1 margin. Student polls showed the same sort of excitement for Kennedy, Johnson, and Humphrey. The same goes for Carter, at least the first time around. In March 1978, Yeshiva students participated in rallies to protest Carter’s dealings with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Carter was a turning point.

Two years later, most Yeshiva University students cautiously sided, for the first time, with the Republican candidate. Students admitted: “The choice is between a proven disaster and a potential catastrophe and I vote catastrophe;” “There have to be more qualified people than these candidates. Something is wrong with the system if this is the only choice we’re provided with. But I am leaning toward Reagan as the lesser of two evils;” “The choices are limited and I feel Reagan is much more qualified than Carter. I chose Reagan on the basis of his policy toward Israel and his economic policy;” “Even though I’ve voted Democratic in the past I feel the Republicans are offering our best bet;” “The choice of candidates is very poor, but the clear-cut choice for me is Ronald Reagan since he represents a sound economic and foreign policy;” and “The choice is between a peanut farmer and an actor, I’ll take a movie over a crummy jar of peanut butter anytime.”

The sentiment matched feelings at Stern College for Women. Three quarters of eligible voters were registered Democrats. Yet, all but a handful of polled women on the Midtown Manhattan campus voted for Reagan. Stern students flipped due to his positions on the issues of Israel, the economy, and inflation. According to Stern’s student paper, “women’s rights” did not play much of a role in student voting calculations.

This coheres with available data on Orthodox Jews. The National Jewish Coalition found that 60 percent of Orthodox Jews voted for Reagan. Most certainly, Rabbi Weinberger had underestimated Orthodox voters in Brooklyn. In Boro Park and Flatbush, Reagan amassed 15,779 votes. Carter received 8,773. Actually, Carter’s 1980 presidential campaign was far and away the worst showing for a Democrat among Jewish voters since 1920. Most chalk that up to Carter’s presidential struggles and Reagan’s “strong” support of Israel. Despite all this, America’s Jews remained loyal to the Democratic Party in later presidential elections. Any thought to the contrary was rebutted by a much-discussed pre-election survey conducted by a consortium of prominent Jewish newspapers in 1988 amid “widespread expectations of a significant shift by Jews … from their traditional Democratic voting patterns.” The Carter-Reagan race, however, formally unhinged Orthodox Jews from that sort of liberal voting behavior.

Orthodox Jews and the “Single Issue Voter”

This does not mean that Orthodox Jews pledged allegiance to the Republican Party. To the contrary, not long into Reagan’s tenure, amid fears that the president would cooperate with Saudi Arabia, a Bronx-based rabbi penned an open letter in a New York newspaper stating: “I was a Democrat all my life and I deeply regret voting for you and urging hundreds of my friends to do likewise in our last National election.” In his campaign for a second term, Reagan claimed the right wing Brooklyn Jews in Boro Park and Williamsburg. His opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale, won two to one in other New York City districts with larger Modern Orthodox residents. The patterns remained somewhat erratic. In 1988, most Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn sided with Gov. Michael Dukakis rather than the Republican, George H. Bush. However, Market Opinion Research, a Detroit-based firm, tabulated that three out of four Orthodox Jews in other parts of the United States tended to vote for Bush.

In the subsequent decade, there was still a substantial sense that Orthodox Jews veered toward conservatism. Accordingly, it was very encouraging to liberals to learn that Orthodox Jews had something to do with Gov. Bill Clinton’s victory over Bush in the 1992 race. The press reported that “some observers say that [Sen. Joseph Lieberman]—the only Orthodox Jew in the Senate—was particularly effective in convincing Orthodox Jews to return to the Democratic party.” It certainly did not help Bush that in the months before the election his administration rejected Israel loan guarantees because the agreement on the table provided too much latitude for Israel to “continue building settlements in the occupied territories.” Orthodox Jews somewhat cooled to Clinton—due to his own Israel policies—in the next presidential election but intensified their support of the Party in 2000 when Al Gore ran alongside their religious kinsman, Joe Lieberman.

In the post-Carter era, it is not the case that the Modern Orthodox have converted to Republicanism (although, the Democrats’ gay marriage plank has become a nonstarter for some of the Orthodox Right). Rather, polls and surveys made it clear that more and more Orthodox Jews emerged as “single issue voters.” In a word, most Orthodox Jews made their way into the ballot boxes most prepared to pull the lever for the candidate who they perceived was best for Israel. Was this all to do with President Carter? Certainly not. First, the Six-Day War and its “miraculousness” had inspired many Jews in the United States that their dual-loyalties could no longer be justified. Israel needed to come before their Americanism. It infuriated some Orthodox commentators who found it downright irritating that in 1976 “both presidential candidates directed themselves to Jewish voters on the single-issue of Israel.” Yet, the strategy often worked. In a rather extreme example, this is exactly what transpired in Boro Park in the early 1970s. Reported one sociologist:

Richard Nixon swept the community in 1972 by as large a plurality as he lost it in 1960 … Young people in the community, who just four years earlier had rallied to the idealistic calls of Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, threw their support behind Nixon in 1972. In fact, the offices of the Democratic Party in Boro Park did not even carry the names of McGovern and Shriver in their windows during the ‘72 campaign.

Second, and to a much lesser extent, Orthodox Jews—despite the hawkishness of their rabbinical and congregational organizations—were opposed to the Vietnam War. Like so many other Americans, they became disillusioned with the government, politics, and, of course, the Democrat presidents who were most associated with that military situation. All of this played a role in removing Orthodox Jews from the list of de facto Democrat voters.

Israel has remained the looming issue for Orthodox Jews in recent elections. To them, this meant turning to the Republican candidate with added fervor. The Orthodox Union reported that approximately 70 percent of this community voted for Gov. George W. Bush in 2004 and then Sen. John McCain and Gov. Mitt Romney in their efforts to oppose Barack Obama. However, in the Modern Orthodox-dense Teaneck, precincts reported a slim advantage for the Democrat ticket in 2004 and 2008. In 2012, Romney edged Obama 52-47.

2016 Presidential Mock Elections

On October 20, 2016, I sent e-mails to ranking principals and Modern Orthodox day school administrators. My goal was to gain a better understanding of where Orthodox Jews stood in the current political arena, figuring that young people, as addressed above, would vote according to the impressions made upon them in their homes.

Essentially, the results confirmed the prevailing assumptions that this Orthodox community aligned with Donald Trump. Nine out of eleven Modern Orthodox day schools in the “Tristate” area overwhelmingly voted for Trump. The lopsidedness hardly jives with the results of Jewish day school mock elections recorded by the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York. Officials responsible for this effort recall that the races in the Bush and Obama eras were far tighter in the more recent tabulations. But this last election was altogether different. In one instance, students in a large New York Orthodox high school voted for Trump by a 254-25 margin. Despite the reports of the Republican candidate’s questionable comments on women, “Trump won by a landslide” at some all-girls schools. Perhaps most astounding, Trump curried 68 percent of the vote in the liberal-leaning Ramaz School, in contradistinction to how most Upper East Siders voted last November.

Trump also won in most of the so-called out-of-town Orthodox environs by a ratio of 5:2. One young woman in a Florida day school asked her fellow students in an editorial “how can we expect a man who shows no respect for women, or even his own daughter, to treat our country with the reverence it deserves as the leader of the Western World?” Another in the northeast affirmed that “Hillary is the right choice. Donald Trump is offensive and obnoxious.” For these reasons, no doubt, Clinton was more competitive in these schools; there were few Trump “landslides.” At Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston, Trump garnered 43.7 percent of the vote while Clinton claimed 40.2 percent. Interestingly, the margin of victory in “blue” schools was also slim, and within a certain margin of error. For example, high schoolers at the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Maryland, voted for Clinton at a 45.1 percent clip and Trump at 42.5.

A good share of Modern Orthodox day schools did not hold elections. One of these was YULA Girls High School in Los Angeles. For Brian Simon, the school’s history department chair, a mock election would have offered some interesting results. According to him, many high school girls “are inspired by the idea of a female president” but are still “very concerned by the recent developments, investigations, and reports surrounding the conduct of both candidates.” In any case, Simon and his colleagues decided not to hold a mock election, contrary to the practice in prior years. The reason for this, explained Simon, was “due to the tenor and tone of this particular election’s news cycle.” The decision echoed many other day school sentiments.

In fact, it has proved menacing for many teachers and students of all stripes during this election cycle. Another Orthodox day school principal reported: “we feel, due to the nature of the current political climate, we prefer to focus on the ballot measures and teaching our students more about the process and less about the current candidates.”

The idea was shared by another head of school. His middle school students were asked to “create fictional candidates based on the Republican and Democratic platforms and had them campaign, debate, and fund-raise.” This attitude reflected Simon’s decision on how to incorporate the campaign into his curriculum at YULA. “This year,” he said, “our election-based activities and projects have focused on candidate platforms on concrete, relevant issues such as health care, the economy, climate change, privacy and data security, and education. We have tried to steer clear of the sensationalistic aspects of this election.”

However, for about half of the solicited schools, this quagmire meant not addressing the presidential campaigns and election in any formal manner. One school administrator put it very pithily: “I think we feel it would bring an unproductive tension into the school.” Similarly, most of the schools that held a mock election did so with great reservation (and asked to remain anonymous for this study). A number of them decided to hold the traditional vote but did so in isolation. Meaning, all other discussions, assemblies, and other forms of political pageantry were muted or canceled—again, out of concern for the comportment and sensitivities of their students.

Whither Modern Orthodoxy?

The results of this mock election research confirms two important items. First, Donald Trump’s victories within the halls of Modern Orthodox day schools helps substantiate the supposition that these students’ voting-age parents also supported the Republican candidate. The reasons for Trump’s success in this realm are varied. No doubt, his strong rhetorical support for Israel, like all candidates before him, played a role. In addition, one school principal figured that Trump’s “‘potty talk’ speaks very well to ten-year-old boys.” Other educators also offered that “economics” steered the mock election vote. By this, principals and teachers did not have in mind Trump’s policies on the country’s economy. Rather, they meant to single out a certain space for their Modern Orthodox families—or at least the perception of them—with American demographics: wealthy white men and, to a somewhat lesser extent, white women, voted in considerable numbers for Donald Trump.

That this contributed to the Modern Orthodox political calculations of these girls and boys is somewhat surprising. Israel still remained a strong issue, but it was not the “single” issue in 2016. Perhaps this should have been anticipated, especially in light of the standoffishness demonstrated by so many day schools. In other words, it is altogether possible that Modern Orthodox Jews—children and adults—supported Trump based in large measure on decisions uninformed by Jewish education or Jewish interests. Unquestionably, there are well-reasoned arguments grounded in Jewish texts and tradition that cohere with Donald Trump’s mission. Whether these are acceptable or untenable is not my point.

Instead, I am concerned that Orthodox Jews play politics based on their whiteness rather than their Jewishness. Decades ago, the leading Jewish commentator and essayist, Milton Himmelfarb, quipped that “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” The clever line alluded to the point that Jews remained liberal voters despite their increased wealth. But wealth and money eventually make a difference, especially when it weighs so heavily on a community’s culture. Currently, Modern Orthodox women and men need to earn a lot to afford the basics of a Modern Orthodox lifestyle; items like day school tuition, kosher food, and synagogue membership, to name a few. The vast majority who cannot pay the retail rate must scramble for scholarships and subsidies, or find an emerging community that can better discount these high costs of living. All of this is infused into the community’s psyche and impacts how its members make decisions.

Student newspapers revealed similar concerns. Editorials and student surveys relayed distress over the United States’ relationship with Israel, antisemitism, and political corruption. “He supports Israel more,” said one freshman about Trump, “and for me Israel is my top priority.” Young people also amplified their parents’ concern for the economy in strident terms and ones untethered to their religious tenets or teachings. The current condition of the country’s economy led one student to affirm: “I just hate Hillary. Donald Trump tells it like it is.” In far calmer language, a student at a different high school explained that “from what I hear, they think Donald Trump would be the best candidate. Especially because my dad is a small business owner and economically it makes more sense for them.” For the Modern Orthodox, therefore, it may well be that they now vote like Episcopalians, as well.

The move toward voting along economic lines arrives at a pivotal moment. Years ago, Modern Orthodox champions prided their communities for their ability to grapple with tensions and place disparate notions into conversation. Now, it appears, many Modern Orthodox educators are backpedaling, nervous about uneasiness and confrontation. Accordingly, those who most often wonder about “whither Modern Orthodoxy” miss the point. Our dilemma is not how to identify the right people to educate and lead the discussions. Ours is a challenge to convene the conversation at all. Not too long ago, this was the stuff that made Modern Orthodox Judaism so compelling in the first place.

Zev Eleff is Chief Academic Officer of Hebrew Theological College and Associate Professor of History at Touro College. His most recent book is Authentically Orthodox: A Tradition-Bound Faith in American Life (Wayne State, 2020).