NY Jewish community wields growing political power

High birthrate of ultra-Orthodox and hassidic communities expected to have great impact on future votes.

American Hassidic Jews 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)
American Hassidic Jews 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)
NEW YORK – Only 19 percent of the voters in the New York city mayoral primary on September 10 were Jewish.
That is less than usual, said David Pollack, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. Traditionally, the Jewish vote is 20-32% of the total, and of the Jewish voters this year, less than a third were Orthodox. This, however, is bound to change.
As of 2012, the Jewish population of New York was 1.1 million, fueled by growth in the ultra-Orthodox and hassidic communities.
“This is, sadly, the only Jewish community that is growing,” said Ezra Friedlander, CEO of The Friedlander Group, a public policy organization based in New York and Washington.
“And I underline the word sadly,” he added.
This means that the ultra-Orthodox Jewish vote will only continue to grow, and the demographic will continue to gain clout with every election that rolls around, while the numbers of Conservative and Reform Jews are likely to decline.
In several parts of South Williamsburg, Borough Park, and Crown Heights – three of the neighborhoods in Brooklyn with the highest concentration of hassidic and ultra- Orthodox Jews – the median age is 14 years old. In fact, said Pollack, as of 2011, 69% of Jewish households in Williamsburg had children under age 17.
In a population of more than 33,000, 28,000 of whom are children in yeshivot, that is a lot of potential future voters who will be looking to their local governments for solutions to issues such as affordable housing, improving penniless parochial schools, and escaping the poverty that plagues the community. (According to Pollack’s research, as of 2011 55% of the Jewish community in Brooklyn lives in poverty, and an additional 17% lives in near-poverty.) Assemblyman Dov Hikind has served in the New York State Assembly for 31 years representing Brooklyn’s Assembly District 48, an area that covers much of Borough Park and part of Midwood, both of which have high concentrations of Orthodox Jews.
Hikind, who calls himself, with a laugh, “an Orthodox Jew, to the best of my ability,” has no doubt that the religious Jewish community of New York will play an ever-more important role in elections.
“The Orthodox community in Brooklyn and Queens, and even in parts of Manhattan, is growing by the day, and that means more voters from the Orthodox community,” Hikind said. “Ninety percent of them stay in or near the community, so it’s growing tremendously.”
How quickly? Well, maybe not enough to one day encompass all of New York politics, said Hikind, but “substantial enough to really make a difference. To be a very serious voting bloc.”
The Jewish community of New York has a long history of political activity.
“I like to joke there are very few places in New York where you can acquire votes on a wholesale basis,” said Pollack. “The Orthodox community is one of those places. In Williamsburg, in Borough Park, in Flatbush, you have a culture of voting, because residents understand there’s a connection between voting and being able to deal with the issues important to the community.”
Friedlander said he saw this play out in the mayoral primaries earlier this month.
“This was the first mayoral race where you saw candidates who were very serious about the policy matters and concerns of the [ultra- Orthodox] community,” Friedlander said.
“Years ago, a candidate could just talk in a broad sense about support for Israel.”
Now, he said, politicians who want to keep their jobs need to actually spend time with community leaders.
“Candidates for public office have developed, and need to continue to develop, an interest and expertise in the Orthodox community,” he said.
Yaacov Behrman, a former spokesman for Chabad, also noted the recent establishment of lots of new political groups formed by young community members who want to be politically involved, but don’t want the historical baggage that comes with joining the more established PACs.
This election cycle, Behrman said, “[former candidate for mayor] Bill Thompson visited Crown Heights six times. Twenty years ago he might have come once.”
Friedlander, Hikind and Behrman, however, disagreed with Pollack’s assessment that Orthodox votes could be acquired “wholesale.”
While the community will “absolutely” continue to gain clout, said Friedlander, “it’s not one-size-fits-all.”
“Historically, there were several rabbis and councils that would endorse candidates, and the local Jewish newspaper and large community would blindly follow the leadership,” said Behrman. “Today, because of the Internet and because people are more educated, people are making their own decisions.”
Hikind agreed.  “It’s not all homogenous,” he said, “but a lot of our interests are the same. We care about who is going to be there in terms of parochial and private schools.”
“I think in the case of the Satmar [sects], if their leadership says vote for so-and-so, there’s no doubt that 85%, if not more, will vote that way,” Hikind said. “There’s something to be said for unity. If the Orthodox community was united as a bloc, that would be powerful, but if you’re united and go with the losing candidate, you could have that candidate discount you.”
Whoever ends up succeeding current Mayor Michael Bloomberg, be it Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio or Republican candidate Joseph Lhota, will have to address and work with the Orthodox community, Hikind said.
“There are a number of issues on which the next mayor will have to be much more sensitive.”