Agudath Israel of America has launched a campaign to urge rabbis, teachers, principals and other leaders in the New York haredi community to encourage their members to register to vote. Such campaigns happen every few years, but this year, the community may have more at stake, with several Orthodox politicians running in a slew of local elections.
A meeting organized by Agudath Israel some weeks ago brought together haredi leaders from across Brooklyn to launch a voter registration drive in a community where the average person remains relatively unengaged with politics and where voter registration remains low. The outcome was a decision to circulate an unprecedented petition to leading rabbis in the community to encourage voter registration.
Haredi rabbis in America, unlike their Israeli counterparts, have largely stayed out of politics.
"Haredi rabbis shy away from politics in America," said one haredi man from Borough Park. "To overcome that taboo is hard."
This year several seasoned and unseasoned Orthodox politicians, plus one haredi community activist, will be trying their hands in a few notable local elections. In one, two Orthodox politicians are running against each other, which may lead to schisms in a community that has long been known to vote in a unified bloc.
In September 2009, longtime local politician Joe Lazar will be running against political upstart David Greenfield for a New York City Council seat in the 44th district, which represents the heavily haredi Borough Park.
Whoever wins the city council race will replace Simcha Felder, who just weeks ago announced his decision to seek the Democratic nomination for the state Senate.
Originally slated to run for the city-wide comptroller's position, Felder made a surprising turnaround earlier this month and will take on three-time incumbent Kevin Parker and city council member Kendal Stewart in the Senate race.
Both Parker and Stewart are black. Felder is Orthodox and has represented some of the most heavily Orthodox parts of Brooklyn since 2002.
Felder is hoping to do what another Orthodox politician, Noach Dear, tried and failed to do twice.
"In previous races, many people have said they didn't have much to choose from. Now that's not the case," said Felder. "By the time election day comes, they will know what's on the menu. They can choose to elect either someone who has an impeccable record, or reelect the same person in office who has failed the community miserably."
If he wins, Felder will represent a heavily divided district, which is largely black and Caribbean, but this does not seem to phase him.
"This is not an issue of one community versus another," said Felder. "Everyone has the same things that bother them - education, taxes, social services for the needy - which I pride myself on having focused on. The present senator does not."
Felder's decision to run has placed another longtime Orthodox politician, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, in an awkward position. By the time Felder, who served as Hikind's chief of staff for seven years, announced his campaign, Hikind had already pledged his support to Parker.
"I think the world of Felder, he's a great friend," said Hikind. "I wish him the best, but what am I supposed to do."
In an effort to repair relations with Parker, whom Hikind had criticized in the past for failing to adequately represent the district, the two sat down and agreed to "turn a corner together" at the request of Senate Minority Leader Malcolm Smith.
"At the end of the day, it's a question of whether my word means anything," said Hikind.
Stewart, a Caribbean, may be Felder's only shot at winning the race. The district is split between an African American and Caribbean majority, and a haredi minority.
"Felder has a chance if two black candidates split the vote," said Hikind.
Greeenfield, a 29-year-old rabble rouser who served as Hikind's chief of staff for a few months, also finds himself without the assemblyman's backing. Hikind is standing behind Lazar and has been campaigning aggressively on his behalf.
"Greenfield didn't last very long in my office, and there's a reason for that," said Hikind, who refused to elaborate further.
Greenfield, executive vice president of the Sephardic Community Federation and a newcomer to electoral politics, has made a name for himself among the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox as a staunch advocate of private education.
He has been called the "Obama candidate," in part because he publicly criticizes the Democratic machine on his weekly radio segment.
"I think that obviously what they are referring to is
the idea that I am interested in change, and bringing people who haven't otherwise been engaged in government," said Greenfield. "If that's the case, I'm happy to take it as a compliment."
Greenfield helped start Vote NYS, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to registering ethnic communities to vote. Since they opened in January they have registered 2,500 new voters across New York City, Greenfield said.
"A very significant part of the community is not registered, and we are doing what we can to educate them," said Greenfield. "They don't feel like they have a say in the system. The same elected officials have been in power for a long time, and they lose touch with the community needs."
But Greenfield faces an uphill battle against Lazar, a
veteran of city and state government and community service for over 40 years, who has the backing of most of the Democratic mainstays.
In another race for a city council seat in a district that includes Williamsburg - a heavily Orthodox swath of Brooklyn - Isaac Abraham, a 56-year-old community activist and hardware-store owner from Williamsburg, joins at least four other contenders for the Democratic nomination for the 33rd District seat. If he wins, which is unlikely, Abraham would be the first haredi Jew elected to city council.
"Colleagues, friends and people in the community wanted me to do it 10 years ago, but I felt it wasn't appropriate," said Abraham. "Now with such a major change over in city hall, and looking at the people who are running, I felt it's important that I throw my hat into the ring and run."