“I sing your praises, sometimes I get in trouble for doing that but I will continue to do it forever,” Democratic Assemblyman Dov Hikind told Republican State Senator Dean Skelos on his post-Shabbos radio show late last Saturday night. “I just want to personally thank you for being so amazingly responsive to all of New York State, but to the Jewish community in particular. You are really just a superstar.”
Mr. Skelos, the leader of the New York State Senate and one of the “three men in a room” that control decision-making in Albany, received this high praise for adding yeshiva tuition tax credits into the state budget and his recent work to fund bus service to those same private religious schools. Mr. Hikind is a longtime assemblyman and power broker in the Jewish neighborhoods of southern Brooklyn and, despite being a Democratic Party official, has been more than willing to endorse Republicans.
At the end of last year, Mr. Skelos traveled to the Masbia soup kitchen in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn where, after donning a velvet yarmulke, he chopped carrots, peeled potatoes and ladled kosher soup to the needy. He proceeded to tell a story about smuggling Jewish artifacts into the Soviet Union and joked that his own Greek Orthodox beliefs gave him insight into Orthodox Judaism, letting Yiddish words like tzitzis and shul roll off his tongue all the while. Cameras rolled and mobile phones snapped photos for the Jewish media to consume later, of course.
Mr. Skelos is hardly the first powerful politician to make the pilgrimage to Brooklyn’s kosher soup kitchens, but he is the most notable Republican to do so in recent years, demonstrating a new reality that a swath of heavily Democratic Brooklyn and Queens is ready to vote for candidates who belong to the same party as Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. Indeed, Mr. Skelos and his Republican colleagues drew a new State Senate district in southern Brooklyn this year and packed it with as many Orthodox Jewish voters as possible. In past redistricting cycles, the district lines suggested Republicans sought to dilute the Orthodox vote.
In addition to Mr. Skelos, a healthy string of ambitious Democratic citywide and local elected officials have made the soup-ladling trek, which says nothing of their efforts to pay tribute to other prominent Jewish social service organizations but also speaks volumes about the community’s growing political significance.
“The Orthodox community is growing as a percentage of the population—and a percentage of the vote—every single day,” Mr. Hikind told The Observer last week. “If there’s one group that’s not leaving the city, that’s staying here, that’s buying homes, it’s the Orthodox community.”
This demographic shift, augmented by Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, has transformed much of the Jewish landscape of the city, according to Michael Tobman, a political consultant who has helped advise campaigns and organizations in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.
“I would say the trend is not just about Brooklyn politics,” he said. “The trend is internal to the Jewish community … which is to say older, middle-aged and more secular Jewish voters like my parents—two retired teachers and civil servants in Brooklyn—just don’t have the numbers anymore. It’s a tsunami of Haredi, Orthodox and Russian-speaking Jews.”
While some of this population surge is due to Hasidim, the traditionally garbed community whose cultural practices often lead to large families of 10 or more children (and whose neighborhoods voted more heavily for John McCain in 2008 than the State of Utah), the larger Orthodox Jewish population is experiencing explosive growth in New York City as well.
“The Hasidim have large families, but so do people in the Flatbush-Midwood areas,” Mr. Hikind said. “My daughter has five kids! The idea of having large families goes way beyond the Hasidic community.”
Although this has been an ongoing phenomenon, the political implications of this trend have suddenly become noticeable in two special elections taking place over the past year. After Congressman Anthony Weiner infamously tweeted an unfortunate part of his anatomy to the world at large, culminating in his resignation, Democrats were initially confident that their dominating registration advantage in the district would allow their nominee, Assemblyman David Weprin, to sleep through an easy election. After all, the consensus went, the same district that elected liberal firebrands like Anthony Weiner, Chuck Schumer and Geraldine Ferraro couldn’t possibly elect a Republican, especially some unknown like Bob Turner, a retired Breezy Point businessman and presumed sacrificial lamb. They were in for a rude awakening.
Even though Mr. Turner, a genial 70-year-old grandfather, comes from Irish Catholic stock and Mr. Weprin is a practicing Orthodox Jew, Mr. Turner successfully made the election about “sending a message” to President Obama about his administration’s policies on Israel. He was further helped by Mr. Weprin’s affirmative vote on gay marriage, a move that caused significant backlash in the community. For example, the prominent local newspaper Hamodia declared that Mr. Weprin sold “his very soul” with the vote in an editorial entitled “David Weprin, Who Are You?” Mr. Turner also shrewdly focused his campaign’s spending on Jewish and Russian media with audiences geographically concentrated in the district, allowing him to leverage his shoestring campaign into a five-point upset victory and a new job in Washington.