US SENATOR Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) takes a selfie after encouraging volunteer campaign canvassers ahead of the midterm elections, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on October 28..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
TEANECK, New Jersey – The gym of an elementary school in Teaneck, New Jersey, has been transformed for the day into a polling station. At 9:30 a.m. on a rainy Tuesday morning, just a smattering of the district’s residents were lined up to cast their vote in the 2018 midterm elections; the polls opened at 6 a.m. and closed at 8 p.m.
Amid the cheerful posters and signs plastered on the walls of the gym was a poster reading “Be respectful. Be responsible. Be safe.” It stood out – at least to me – as an ironic reminder of the vitriol that has marked not just the current election campaign, but the last few years of American politics.
It has been two years since US President Donald Trump was elected to office. But for many around the country, it feels like a lifetime has passed in an atmosphere of divisive politics at both the national and local level.
Teaneck, a suburban town of around 40,000 people, is believed to be about 50% Jewish; the neighboring towns of Bergenfield, New Milford, Fair Lawn and Englewood also have large Jewish communities, the majority of whom identify as Modern Orthodox. The Modern Orthodox community in the US has long straddled the line between strict observance and integration in the outside world. And in recent years it has found itself decisively split by Trump’s presidency
and its impact on national politics.
On Saturday morning at a synagogue in Teaneck, the rabbi prefaced the traditional prayer for the welfare of the US government with an announcement. “There are a handful of people who have taken to hissing when I say this prayer each week,” he said of the blessing wishing for the success of the US president. This week, he said, the first Shabbat morning service since the horrific Pittsburgh shooting, “I don’t want to hear it. Leave your politics outside.”
In 2016, 75% of Teaneck voters overall cast their ballot for Hillary Clinton, and just 21% voted for Trump. The breakdown among the town’s observant Jews is likely closer to 50/50.
In the two years that followed – and indeed the months leading up to the vote – many in the community saw friendships falter, family celebrations turn hostile and synagogue gatherings tinged by awkwardness. A staff member at a local Orthodox high school said that teaching about government and politics has become particularly tense over the past few years, with a student body reflecting the positions of their parents.
Several community members have told me they stopped accepting Shabbat meal invitations from those whose political positions pained them. Others said they do everything they can to steer conversations around the Shabbat table away from politics. One even said they walked out of a meal before dessert was served as the rhetoric intensified.
Two years after Trump’s election, the divide remains. Many are pleased by Trump’s vocal support of Israel, thrilled by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s voting record and overjoyed by his decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Others are disturbed by his race-baiting rhetoric, his reluctance to condemn his nationalist supporters and his often unpredictable and self-serving behavior.
And just 10 days after the worst antisemitic attack in American history, the political atmosphere feels particularly charged – and particularly personal.
The community has never been a politically cohesive one. Some embraced former president Barack Obama while others shunned him from the start. But even many of his supporters soured after his support of the Iran deal, and his tense relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The split among many is intensified by Trump’s familial and political ties to members of the Modern Orthodox community. His son-in-law Jared Kushner is a graduate of the Modern Orthodox Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey. His envoy to Israel, David Friedman, was born and raised in the religious community of Woodmere on Long Island. And his top aide and special envoy, Jason Greenblatt, is a Yeshiva University graduate who has lived in Teaneck for many years.
There is a lot at stake in the midterm elections. It is the first national referendum on the president’s policies since his victory in 2016. But whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s vote, the Modern Orthodox Jewish community will remain, in many ways, a fractured one.
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