Election fever yet to reach Brooklyn's Russian Jews

Of the Russian Jews who voted Tuesday, Clinton seemed to be the favorite.

brooklyn bridge 88 (photo credit: )
brooklyn bridge 88
(photo credit: )
At a polling station in Brighton Beach, at the southernmost tip of Brooklyn, Russian Jewish voters trickled in at a slow but steady pace on Tuesday, many lacking the urgency their fellow Jews have expressed in the weeks leading up to the New York primary. Most were elderly Russian immigrants who have congregated in the southern tip of Brooklyn since the first wave arrived several decades ago. Today, older and younger generations of immigrants and first-generation Russian Americans remain relatively isolated from their fellow Jews and the mainstream Jewish organizations that reside kilometers away. Their isolation was noticeable Tuesday, as many expressed indifference towards and ignorance about the primary election, which in the last few weeks Jews have been actively weighing in on. Russian Jews have been slow to join the political process, and while efforts to educate and acculturate Russian Jews to the American political system have increased, many remained uninterested and unsure on primary day in New York. One man, who isn't Russian but who has lived in the primarily Russian neighborhood of Brighton Beach, said at 8:30 in the morning he was disappointed to find an empty polling booth. "There is very little turnout, which is very scary because it's so important for them [Russians,]" said Gabe Christopher. "Most people don't think it's important." While some Russians exited the polling booth, many walked by and said they weren't voting. Some didn't even realize there was a primary election. "We vote for the president, not in the primaries," said one elderly couple who walked by the Shorefront Y, which serves as a Jewish community center and polling station in Brighton Beach. Another young Russian woman who walked by said she wasn't voting because she is "so far from politics." Another woman on the Coney Island boardwalk said she doesn't usually vote because it's "not important," and because she doesn't see "somebody who makes a difference." Tali, an Israeli-American who has lived among the Russian immigrants in Brighton Beach for over a decade, said she was disappointed with the "Russian vote." "They neglect the issue of women's rights," said Tali, who is supporting Sen. Hillary Clinton. "Most of them vote like a beauty pageant, so the most attractive man wins. They harbor a misconception that voting is not effective. "As long as people can pay the rent and eat, they don't vote." And when they do vote, they vote with "ignorance," she added. "Not voting and voting in ignorance are both bad judgement. They don't understand that this is a momentous day, and they turn the ballot into a grocery list." At the mention of Clinton's opponent Sen. Barack Obama, one woman on her way to vote emphatically repeated: "I want to know who is this Obama, who is Obama?" Out of the more than 300,000 Russian-speaking Jews in New York, over 120,000 are citizens, and roughly 100,000 are registered voters, according to Sam Kliger, director of Russian Jewish Community Affairs at the American Jewish Committee. Kliger estimated that 25-30 percent of registered Democrats voted in Tuesday's primaries, and fewer Republicans, now that Rudy Giuliani, a favorite among Russian Jews, was not on the ballot. "Probably less Russians than [native-born] Americans are voting today," said Kliger. "People not too interested. "People don't know much about [Republican candidate John] McCain, and less about [Mitt] Romney, so they are [uninvolved]," said Kliger. "On the Democratic side, those who vote, vote for Clinton, and those who decided not to vote think Clinton will win anyway, so figure 'why should I bother to vote?'" Many more Russian Jews are expected to vote in the general election in November. In 2004, more than 60% of eligible voters cast ballots, and Kliger said he expected a similar percentage to vote in 2008. The voting patterns of the Russian Jewish community, however, can be hard to pin down. Though most are registered Democrats, they are not typically loyal to one party. "Though the Democratic party is [more popular], Russian voters always vote not by party line, but by personalities," said Gene Borsch, national director of the Civic and Voter Education Initiative, which was started four years ago to educate and register Russians in several cities across the US with large Russian communities. Of the Russian Jews who voted Tuesday, Clinton seemed to be the favorite. "I don't have any doubts that the overwhelming majority of Democrats will vote for Clinton," said Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny, who was elected in 2006. "The choice is clear, whether we all will get to the polls is the challenge." In general, the first wave of Russians, who came to the US in the 1970s and 1980s during the Reagan era, tended to identify as Republicans and remained loyal to the party in gratitude for having opened the doors to them. "They felt loyal to the Republican Party, because they felt it was the real reason they were here," said Borsch. The younger generation of immigrants, who arrived in the 1990s, leans more towards the Democratic party. Still, in 2004, a large majority of Russian Jews voted for George W. Bush, in large part because of his perceived support for Israel. Some estimate that 95% of Russian Jews in the US have family or friends living in Israel, and a candidate's support for the Jewish state is of primary importance. "Many saw him as a real fighter in the Middle East, who devoted his life to protect Americans, and especially new Yorkers," said Borsch. Today, the priorities have changed. "Right now, people worry about the economy, and immigration," said Borsch. "We would like to be protected, and give [a] chance to everyone, since we came under refugee status." Kliger estimated that in an election today, 60% of Russian Jews would support Clinton and 40% would support McCain. But McCain is reaching out the Russian community, and Kliger expected those numbers to change. "I wouldn't be surprised if by August, the rate might change," said Kliger. "He [McCain] will gain more, and she [Clinton] will lose more." If that trend continues, Kliger said, McCain may gain 60-65% of the Russian Jewish vote by November.