New York midterm elections: Ultra-Orthodox Jews get out vote for Zeldin

Appealing to the ultra-Orthodox electorate has boiled down to two fundamental issues: frustration with New York City’s increased crimes and ongoing state attempts to regulate yeshiva schools. 

 NEW YORK Congressman and Republican New York gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin shakes hands with people during the annual Columbus Day parade in New York City, earlier this month (photo credit: REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON)
NEW YORK Congressman and Republican New York gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin shakes hands with people during the annual Columbus Day parade in New York City, earlier this month
(photo credit: REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON)

NEW YORK – As early voting in New York neared its close Sunday evening, a line of voters, almost entirely haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, remained wrapped around the block in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, where influential community leaders have come out strongly for Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican, for governor.

Residents who were unable to vote on Shabbat waited up to an hour to cast their ballots on Sunday. Similar lines were seen in other Brooklyn neighborhoods.

The numbers of haredi Jews turning out to vote in the midterm election were unparalleled. But everything about the battle for governor is unusual, and it is the first time the state’s gubernatorial race is tight in decades.

As the close contest between Zeldin and incumbent Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democratic, heads into its last day of the campaign, the winner could come down to who better mobilized Orthodox Jewish voters. Appealing to the haredi electorate has boiled down to two fundamental issues: frustration with New York City’s increased crime and ongoing state attempts to regulate yeshiva schools.

Numerous key hassidic groups endorsed Zeldin over the past week, resulting in the Long Island congressman’s gain on the once heavily favored Democratic front-runner, who replaced former governor Andrew Cuomo after he resigned amid sexual-harassment charges in 2021.

“The Zeldin campaign has been aggressively courting the Orthodox community over the entirety of the campaign.”

Sam Markstein

Endorsements from Brooklyn-based haredi groups, which mostly came over the past week, are expected to lead to thousands of critical votes for Zeldin as he pushes for a historic upset on Tuesday.

Race for New York governor: Gov. Kathy Hochul and Rep. Lee Zeldin debate Tuesday night two weeks before Election Day  (credit: Screenshot/Spectrum News NY-1)Race for New York governor: Gov. Kathy Hochul and Rep. Lee Zeldin debate Tuesday night two weeks before Election Day (credit: Screenshot/Spectrum News NY-1)

“The Zeldin campaign has been aggressively courting the Orthodox community over the entirety of the campaign,” Sam Markstein, Republican Jewish Coalition national political director, told The Jerusalem Post.

Communities are thought to often vote as a bloc, which has led politicians to commonly court the haredi leadership in Brooklyn and in Rockland and Orange counties.

The Orthodox, who make up as many as 100,000 votes of the 1.8 million cast by Jews in New York State, traditionally vote for Republican candidates in national elections. But if a Democratic candidate is most likely to win in a local election, their leaders will cross party lines.

If elected, Zeldin would be the state’s first Republican Jewish governor. New York, considered a deeply blue state, has not elected a Republican governor in 20 years, making it surprising that an Emerson College Polling/Pix11/The Hill survey taken as early voted started last week found that Hochul was leading Zeldin by just 6% with 4% remaining undecided.

Helping protect ultra-Orthodox yeshiva schools in New York

Zeldin, one of only two Jewish Republicans in Congress, is a longtime ally of Israel and a regular at RJC events. But weeks prior to the midterm election, he shifted to position himself in alliance with the issues most important to haredi voters, primarily defending parochial schools.

At the beginning of the month, Zeldin picked up an endorsement from the Flatbush Jewish Community Center (FJCC), a coalition of more than 200 synagogues and Jewish organizations within the greater Flatbush area, considered one of the most coveted backings in the community.

The endorsement is largely due to Hochul’s refusal to clarify her stance on state involvement with yeshiva schools, which are under increased public scrutiny for their students’ poor performance on standardized tests after an eye-opening, front-page New York Times investigation shed light on the issue in September.

Zeldin, on the other hand, used the opportunity to tour yeshivot and pledge support to them, telling cheering crowds in Brooklyn that his mother taught at a yeshiva and speaking fondly of his grandfather, who was an Orthodox rabbi. On a recent “get out the vote” trip to Williamsburg, a supporter handed Zeldin, whose wife is a Mormon, a prayer bag for tallit and tefillin etched with his Hebrew name, Moshe.

“New York is wrong for pushing these substantial-equivalency standards. As governor, I will promote more school choice, not less, and do everything in my power to fight for students first and empower parents to be in control of the family’s destiny in life.”

Lee Zeldin

“New York is wrong for pushing these substantial-equivalency standards,” Zeldin said in a statement. “As governor, I will promote more school choice, not less, and do everything in my power to fight for students first and empower parents to be in control of the family’s destiny in life.”

Early voting turnout in the community has been “unprecedented,” with an equally large number of voters expected to show up on Election Day, FJCC chairman Josh Mehlman told the Post.

“The Jewish vote will absolutely determine the election outcome in a way it never has,” he said. “We are getting the message out loudly. Zeldin respects our constitutional right to educate our children the way we believe without interference from government entities.”

Rising crime among the top issues in New York

Polls show that combating rising crime and the economy are the top issues among Empire State voters, consistent among the Orthodox Jewish electorate as well, who bear the brunt of antisemitic hate crimes.

“In every community, there’s a deterioration of quality of life here and a general sense of danger in the city and the state,” Mehlman said. “There’s a lack of concern and care for our community’s needs by the current governor.”

Another key endorsement for Zeldin came last Tuesday from the largest voting bloc in Borough Park. Notably, the group is supporting other incumbent Democrats.

In a flier written primarily in Yiddish, the Bobov Hassidim endorsed Zeldin. Bobov backed two incumbent Democrats, Letitia James for attorney general and Charles Schumer for senate.

In a letter to Orthodox leaders on Tuesday, Hochul said she acknowledged that “education is an important value in the Jewish community and I want to assure everyone that Jewish schools will always be treated with fairness and respect.”

As governor, Hochul has taken a hands-off approach, saying the Education Department operates independently of the governor.

In another major endorsement for Zeldin last week, an email was sent with the subject line “For NYS residents – An urgent personal message from Rabbi Dovid Nojowitz.” Nojowitz is national director of Torah Umesorah.

The Post obtained a copy of the email: “The BAD news is that our children’s chinuch [education] is at stake,” the message begins in red lettering. “The GOOD news is that you can help with your VOTE.

“The Governor of New York state wields tremendous influence on the state Education Department. As governor, KATHY HOCHUL has allowed unchecked the dangerous educational standards to be adopted, threatening our yeshivos, repeatedly rebuffing efforts for meaningful dialogue. Lee Zeldin is strongly opposed to governmental intrusion into our yeshivas and will fight for their independence. Across the board – on issues ranging from decadent morals to inflation, crime, bail reform, etc. – the progressive’s overreaching agenda of identity politics and degenerate morals are an acute threat to our ability to live our lives in New York state as Torah Jews and decent law-abiding citizens in safe communities.”

“Even if you do not usually go out and vote, this time please vote! You will be doing no less than protecting our children’s chinuch. On Tuesday, November 8, VOTE LEE ZELDIN.”

In an 11th-hour attempt to restore support among the Orthodox, Hochel met last week with the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, of Kiryas Joel and yeshiva administrators. She earned the backing of one of the two competing Satmar hassidic sects, who in their endorsement argued that given her likelihood of remaining in office, they should maintain a good relationship with Democrats. The other Satmar sect in Brooklyn, called the Zalis, which in last year’s mayoral primary backed Andrew Yang, did not endorse anyone in the gubernatorial race.

Yossi Gestetner, a commentator on current events who runs the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, applauded voices of influence in the community who are calling on members to vote.

“I see it, and people are responding to it,” he told the Post. “Crime and the independence of yeshivas seem to be the most burning issues. The governor dropped, and is still dropping, the ball on violent crime, and more so on yeshivas.”

Gestetner called both candidates “blank slates.”

“Gov. Hochul is on her job for only 14 months, while most Orthodox Jews don’t have Zeldin [who represents Suffolk County] as their congressman,” he said.

Despite the legions of endorsements and “get out the vote” campaigns, “some people in leadership will sit this one out,” Gestetner said. “[Some don’t want to] oppose an incumbent, but also [do not want] to back her after the mess with yeshivas.”