Engaging Pennsylvania's historic Jewish community

As crucial primary nears, the Jewish vote is going to count for the first time in a long time.

Obama jews 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Obama jews 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Before the pealing Liberty Bell could announce the historic signing in 1776 of the Declaration of Independence, it had to be ferried across the Atlantic Ocean and brought to preside over Independence Hall here, in the City of Brotherly Love. In 1752, that task fell to Nathan Levy, the city's first Jewish inhabitant and the proprietor of a shipping company. Thus did Jewish history become entwined with Philadelphia history, which in turn became entwined with the history of the United States. Like Abraham, a sojourner who first established a Jewish toehold in Canaan by procuring a burial plot for his wife Sarah, Levy, a New York merchant seeking business opportunity in the colony to the south, obtained the first Jewish property in the colony of Pennsylvania in order to bury his young son. Like Abraham, Levy was offered the plot for free, but unlike Abraham, Levy accepted the gift without payment; the land he received in 1740 ended up becoming a communal Jewish cemetery that still exists today. Levy received the parcel from the family of William Penn, who had received the rights to all of the Pennsylvania colony's land from the British monarchy and had tried to set up a colony based on Quaker principles. Those principles included tolerance of different faiths, including the Hebraic one, which created a colony more diverse and welcoming than most. And that made the few Jews who had settled in Pennsylvania by the time of the Declaration of Independence particularly patriotic. Reciting the declaration's reference to each man's universal right "to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," Philadelphia historian and tour guide Ron Avery explained that, "They had a general feeling that there was going to be religious tolerance, that everyone could practice their religion - plus they were part of the society of the time, they weren't that separate." So they embraced the declaration as others did, listening to the chorus of bells. "There was no radio. There was no television, so all the bells were ringing," Avery noted. Nowadays, there's plenty of radio and TV in town. They've come to record another historic occasion. Two hundred and thirty-two years later, Pennsylvania once again is taking center stage in the democratic process - make that Democratic process. As the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination has dragged on, Pennsylvania has become the latest important battleground. Ahead of next Tuesday's key primary, the candidates have crisscrossed the state seeking votes. And the results could be determinative. If New York Senator Hillary Clinton loses to Illinois Senator Barack Obama, despite being favored to win in this large state connecting the East Coast with the American Midwest via a string of blue collar industrial and agricultural communities, it would be hard to see how she could continue. If, however, she comes up with a resounding victory, it could give her much-needed momentum heading into North Carolina and Indiana and help make the case that despite Obama's all-but-insurmountable lead in delegates, she's the only one who can deliver the crucial white working-class demographic for the Democrats and, moreover, win big states. Then super-delegates - who aren't bound by the popular vote - might choose her in numbers large enough to secure the nomination. Current polls put Clinton six points on top - down considerably from the double-digit lead she once enjoyed, but still a healthy one. If she does pull off such a finish, though, there will be a question of whether the margin of victory was enough to blunt Obama's edge. The Jewish community, generally highly politically involved, has been especially involved given the stakes of the race. "They're more energized, as I think is true of everybody in this state, because for the first time in I don't know how many presidential primaries, our votes are going to count," said Robin Schatz, the director of government affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Generally Pennsylvania has voted too late in the primary process to affect the nomination's outcome. Jews in Pittsburgh are also in on the action, according to Dan Frankel, a Democratic state representative from Pennsylvania's second-largest city. "Politically, it's always been extremely active." The two Jewish communities, as in other places, tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic but are split between the party's two choices. (Arizona Senator John McCain has already sewn up the Republican nomination.) Frankel said the Jewish community is fairly evenly divided between the two candidates, using his family as an example. "My parents are vehemently split," said Frankel, who himself is campaigning on behalf of Clinton. "It's become almost unpleasant to have dinner with them." He acknowledged the strength of Obama's support has been somewhat unexpected given Clinton's strong position among Jews heading into the 2008 elections and her dominance in Pennsylvania generally. "It's a little surprising, but at the same time the Jewish community fits the Obama demographic in other ways - highly educated, affluent. That's really Obama's sweetspot." Frankel noted that unlike many other American Jewish communities, Pittsburgh's Jews have stayed largely concentrated in one urban area, making it an intense focus of politicians. But in Philadelphia, the population has spread out, with more than half now in the suburbs. That's a spot in which Clinton is finding a lot of support, Schatz said - and it happens to be a key one, as the suburbs are a swing area. "She's a more comfortable fit for people in the suburbs in many ways. She's not radical. She's experienced," Schatz said. Avery, who will be voting for Obama, said that the mentality of the city's Jews - which he described as "don't rock the boat" - also favors Clinton some. "We didn't have that many socialists or anarchists, while New York had a lot of them," he said of the community's tone. Another thing that could help Clinton among Jews here is their relative age, as older voters generally tend to favor her. According to Schatz, Pennsylvania has the country's second- or third-oldest population, and the Jewish community has a higher percentage of people over 80 than any other demographic group. The campaigns want to make sure they snap up all the votes they can and have been holding candidate forums with campaign surrogates, sending out emails to community leaders and dispatching volunteers to pound the pavement in search of Jewish votes. "Both of the campaigns have spent a great deal of time and attention in reaching out to people in the Jewish community," said Burt Siegel, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council for Greater Philadelphia. "I've been invited to more events than I ever have before." Just Wednesday, Obama held a meeting with some 70 Jewish leaders, including rabbis from the major denominations and professionals heading a range of organizations, to answer questions and address concerns in the community. There is also talk of Clinton meeting with Jewish officials in Philadelphia on Thursday. Nearly 300,000 Jews live in Pennsylvania (a state of some 12 million people), and voter turnout, usually greater among Jews than the rest of the population, is expected to be particularly high. Around 240,000 Jews live in the Philadelphia metropolitan area and another 40,000 live in Pittsburgh. That's a far cry from the days when the Levys were the sole Jewish family in town. Philadelphia's Jewish ranks swelled to 250 during the American Revolution, when much of the Jewish population fled New York, held by the British, and many settled in Philadelphia where they could contribute to the war effort by helping to finance it. They were prosperous enough to build a synagogue - one of the nation's oldest - with the help of Benjamin Franklin. "He didn't believe in religion for himself, but he thought it was good for everybody else," noted local historian Ron Avery. And so the Founding Father was willing to donate money to his "exotic" neighbors. Fourteen years later, the country's first Ashkenazi synagogue was built. Last Monday, it hosted a candidates' forum for Jewish voters. Next Tuesday, those voters will head to the polls to help elect the head of a government whose framework and founding principles were first declared here.