minority of a minority

The clusters of New York Orthodox Jews backing Biden

Groups launched on social media and WhatsApp have amassed small followings in some Orthodox communities

Richard Drew/AP

Joe Biden speaks during the funeral for U.S. Sen Frank Lautenberg, in New York's Park Avenue Synagogue, Wednesday, June 5, 2013.

This‌ ‌group‌ ‌of‌ ‌activists‌ ‌isn’t‌ ‌very‌ ‌vocal‌ ‌within‌ ‌its‌ ‌own‌ ‌community.‌ ‌

“Remember, for some, being vocally pro-Biden or anti-Trump can be problematic or even dangerous in certain families/social circles/workplaces/communities,” reads the description of a recently launched WhatsApp group of Orthodox Jews that aims to garner support for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

WhatsApp is a major source of news and coordination among many traditional segments of the Jewish community, and the group, created recently by Chaim, a resident of the Flatbush neighborhood in Brooklyn — who refused to go on record with his last name for fear of retribution — currently has 73 members and is active around the clock. 

Chaim and the other activists involved are part of a small but committed group within New York’s Orthodox Jewish community, which traditionally votes for Republican candidates in national elections. Close to 80% of the community voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012, respectively. According to a 2016 exit poll in Brooklyn’s 48th Assembly District — which encompasses most of the Borough Park neighborhood — President Donald Trump received 69% of the vote, while Hillary Clinton got 27%.

This year — amid a pandemic and heightened tensions between Democratic elected officials in the city and the local Jewish community — the president is expected to receive well over a majority of the Orthodox Jewish vote in his home state. A recent poll published by Ami Magazine, a weekly print-only publication widely read in the Orthodox community, found that 83% of Orthodox Jews support Trump’s reelection. A survey conducted for the American Jewish Committee showed a similar result, giving Trump a 74%-18% edge over Biden among Orthodox Jews. 

“What I found fascinating is that no one within my social circles was open with their political views unless they were Trump supporters,” Chaim told Jewish Insider on Thursday. “I had a couple of friends who quietly were Biden supporters, but there was kind of this understanding that if you don’t support Trump — as a Jew — you will be labeled an outsider, and you will be ostracized and maligned.”

Chaim said he was initially fascinated by Trump’s outsider persona and commitment to shaking up the political system, but later became disillusioned with the president. He attributes his switch to supporting Biden to a number of issues: the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, an uptick in antisemitism, the president’s rhetoric regarding his political opponents and the ways in which he saw support for Israel increasingly framed as a partisan issue.

That’s when Chaim began to quietly share his concerns with friends and found other below-the-radar Biden supporters. He was motivated to create the group following recent protests opposing state and local government-imposed lockdowns in Borough Park, where some residents had continued to flout social distancing rules. He launched a Twitter handle, @FrumJews4Joe, and the private WhatsApp group to serve as a “safe environment” for members who “don’t feel safe talking about their convictions or their ideologies, or that they are politically diverse from what’s become mainstream of Orthodox Jewry.” 

One of the discussions in the group focused on how to gain more visibility and counter the voices in the community organizing pro-Trump rallies. Borough Park resident Rayne Lunger created a hashtag #YidenForBiden, using a Yiddish word to refer to Jews, for the activists to use to promote their support of Biden on social media. Lunger, 29, describes herself as a progressive Democrat who voted for Clinton in 2016. She told JI she was “disturbed” by what she saw as a campaign of disinformation — and the level of hatred surrounding political issues.

“I wanted to create visibility just because I know that there are people who are afraid to speak out, and I thought that creating more visibility might make it easier for them to express themselves,” she said of the idea of organizing on social media. “And the other thing is just to try to reclaim the narrative that the Orthodox community is not fully behind Trump and get people connected.”

Amy Mosery, 59, a Modern Orthodox Jewish resident of the Five Towns, recently opened a WhatsApp group, titled “Five T and Beyond 4 Biden/Harris 2020,” which currently has more than 100 members. She was also motivated by what she described as feeling marginalized in political conversations in her social circles. 

Mosery, who voted for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, was “thrilled” to find others in the community who shared the same concerns. “I never in my wildest dreams anticipated that it would grow to the levels that it has grown,” Mosery told JI. On Thursday, the group participated in a Zoom call with Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY), who took questions from members.

“The majority of the people in this chat had never been engaged in the political process at any level,” Mosery pointed out. “And in fact, many people have written on the chat that they have never felt the need or the compulsion to speak out and become emboldened, and the chat has been that vehicle that has helped them to find a place and find their voice.” 

Batya Aliza Etzion, 41, considers herself a “conservative haredi Zionist” from New York. She volunteered for Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-KY) presidential campaign during the 2016 primary, but sat out the general election. While she liked Romney and McCain in 2012 and 2008, she chose not to go out and vote for either. This year, she is voting for the first time — for Joe Biden.

“I only care now because people are dying,” Etzion said in a text conversation with JI. “Herd immunity for coronavirus is a dangerous strategy that disregards pikuach nefesh [saving lives] for our elderly and vulnerable. I can’t vote for a politician advocating such a thing.” She joined the WhatsApp group to find a like-minded community supporting Biden. “It’s kind of scary to be an Orthodox Jew voting for Biden. We get harassed,” Etzion stressed. “This group is important because community is such a Jewish value. We needed to come together.”

Republican political consultant Michael Fragin told JI that the shift in the Orthodox community toward supporting Republican presidential candidates began in 2004. “There is an element of a herd mentality with regard to voting” as a bloc, he said. 

Citing analysis he has conducted in certain congressional districts, Fragin told JI that he would not be surprised to see support for Trump in the religious community increase to the level Romney received in 2012. “The people who were skeptical of him in 2016 most likely see the accomplishments.” 

Fragin also suggested that Orthodox Jews — by and large — vote on the Israel issue. “Israel is one, two and three for many of them.”

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