In Northeast Pennsylvania, two Jewish women face off for a congressional seat

In the shadow of the Bethlehem steel stacks, Republican Lisa Scheller is challenging Democratic incumbent Susan Wild to a rematch

For baby boomers and members of the Greatest Generation, Pennsylvania’s gritty Lehigh Valley is known as the home of the iconic Bethlehem Steel, the company that supplied much of the steel that powered America’s war effort during World War II. 

For their children, Lehigh Valley is the home of Billy Joel’s “Allentown,” a song about the shuttering of those same factories during the deindustrialization of the 1970s and 1980s.  

There aren’t too many people, besides those from the area, who think of the Lehigh Valley as home to a vibrant Jewish community. But Lehigh, which sits about 90 miles east of Manhattan and 70 miles north of Philadelphia, is currently host to the only congressional race in the country in which both the Republican and Democratic candidates are Jewish women. In fact, it may be the only place where that’s ever happened — besides two years ago, when the same two women also ran. Now, Republican Lisa Scheller hopes to beat incumbent Democrat Susan Wild in a rematch at a time when political trends favor Republicans.

“We’re proud of the fact that they don’t have to hide their Jewish identity to be running in our community, and it talks about the multicultural acceptance in our community to be able to be the first one,” said Aaron Gorodzinsky, director of campaign and security planning at the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley. 

Between the cities of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, some 8,000 to 10,000 Jews live in the Lehigh Valley, according to a 2007 study. Wild, a lawyer by training, began the process of converting when her son was preparing for his bar mitzvah in 2006. Scheller runs Silberline Manufacturing, a company founded by her grandparents, who immigrated from Poland and Romania, in nearby Tamaqua, where she grew up in one of the town’s two Jewish families. 

“I’m proud of my Jewish heritage,” Scheller told Jewish Insider in an interview on Wednesday. “My faith is very important to me, the fact that my grandparents came here from Eastern Europe because they were oppressed, and they came here seeking the American dream is something that has been instilled in me through my Jewish faith.” (Wild’s campaign did not respond to numerous requests for comment.) 

The candidates’ politics are entirely different — Scheller believes Wild has enabled overreach and excessive spending by President Joe Biden, and Wild insists Scheller’s opposition to abortion and support for a party that wants to slash social services puts her at odds with the constitutents of the 7th Congressional District — but they share a commitment to nurturing the Lehigh Valley’s small but close-knit Jewish community. 

“It is something of a surprise” that both candidates are Jewish, said Roger Simon, an emeritus professor of history at Lehigh University who has lived in the area for five decades. “I think it’s maybe coincidental as much as anything else. I think Jews still tend to be more civic-minded disproportionately. Considering the size of our population nationally, the number of Jews holding public office and running for public offices is way out of proportion compared to our size, so that might be a factor.”

Wild’s children went to preschool at the local Jewish Community Center, and Scheller’s attended the Jewish day school. Scheller is a Lion of Judah, meaning she gives at least $5,000 annually to the local Jewish federation. Both have pledged to advocate for additional federal security funding for religious nonprofits.

“It is a shame that we have reached the point of having to have the kind of security that we have now here, and in our synagogues and other houses of worship,” Wild said at a candidate forum organized by the Jewish Federation. “When my kids went to preschool here, you could walk in the front door freely. And we really did. That was not that long ago.”

Wild was elected to Congress in 2018 in a year that saw Democrats sweep into red and purple districts around the country. Before she took office, the seat had been represented by Republicans for 20 years. In 2020, Wild defeated Scheller by 14,000 votes, or roughly two percentage points. A late October poll shows Wild and Scheller statistically tied ahead of next week’s contest. 

“It’s probably among the most competitive in the country. It’s a battleground district,” said former Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), who represented the seat for more than a decade before retiring in 2018. 

Chris Borick, the director of Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, which conducted the poll, said some of the key “indicators” point “more in the direction of Scheller than Susan WIld.” The redistricting process added Republican territory from Carbon County, and Scheller’s message about inflation and putting a check on Democratic spending makes sense when the poll showed economic issues are voters’ top concern. 

Lisa Scheller (Courtesy)

“You have to think of individual races within the broader context in which they’re happening. In a midterm election cycle, those cycles are really challenging for the president’s party,” Borick explained. 

That hasn’t stopped Jill Zipin, the founder of an activist group called Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania, from trying to win over voters for Wild. She recently drove up to the Lehigh Valley from her Philadelphia-area home with other women who are involved in a national group called Jewish Democratic Women for Action to knock on doors in the 7th District. 

“I hear people saying, ‘As goes Susan’s race, so goes the nation’ kind of thing,” said Zipin.

A political action committee affiliated with the Republican Jewish Coalition, the leading advocacy organization for politically conservative Jews, is spending heavily in support of Scheller. In September, the group announced a $750,000 ad buy for a TV commercial that called Wild “wildly out of touch.” 

“We’re happy to have Jewish candidates, but I think it’s more an issue of saying, Democrat or Republican,” said Mark Abo, a Republican retired general surgeon who lives in Bethlehem. “Lisa Scheller I think would become the only Republican Jewish woman in the House right now, and the first one in quite a period of time. I think she would be a great representative in Congress, and I think she’d really be a great supporter of Israel.”

Both candidates discussed their positions on Israel at length in the federation’s event, with each pledging to work to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, to advance the Abraham Accords and to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. (Scheller is completely opposed to the Biden administration’s efforts to reenter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, while Wild is open to joining a more comprehensive accord, but noted that she is pessimistic: “I have not been particularly impressed by what we’ve heard from the administration,” she said.)

Wild, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has been endorsed by AIPAC’s PAC. Scheller, who speaks fluent Hebrew, owns a home in Beersheva, Israel, and is a major contributor to Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “I am absolutely an ideologue when it comes to Israel. I purchased a home in Beersheva, [where you have only] 45 seconds [to get to safety] with a missile reach from Gaza, because I believe — like David Ben-Gurion said — that the security of Israel is predicated on the settling of the south,” she said at the federation event. 

“Israel is probably one of the only subjects that my opponent might have almost no light between us, no disagreement on the issues,” Wild said. 

But Scheller disagreed. She argued that Wild’s support for a two-state solution is tantamount to putting conditions on American aid to Israel. An increasing number of Republican candidates and members of Congress have moved away from supporting a two-state solution, long the backbone of American policy. 

“I know my opponent actually voted at one point that she would think that it should be mandated for Israel to pursue a two-state solution brokered by the United States,” Scheller said at the federation forum. “And you know what? That leads to conditioning on it.”

Wild argues that the House Foreign Affairs Committee should spend more time discussing the merits of, and encouraging, the two-state solution. “I think we really need to get discussions of a two-state solution back on track. I feel as though that’s been neglected for far too long,” said Wild. But she also added that she does not support placing any conditions on American aid to Israel.

“I just want to push back again, and just say that there are a few very loud voices who talk about conditioning aid to Israel or reducing aid to Israel,” Wild said, referring to a group of progressive Democrats who do support restricting that aid. “It is certainly not the position of the Democratic caucus. It’s certainly not my position that Israel’s aid should be in any way conditioned. My position is that we should follow the understanding set out in the MOU [2016 Memorandum of Understanding] and need to provide additional support to Israel.”

Rep. Susan Wild (D-PA) joins Protect Our Care to speak during a press conference on September 21, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brian Stukes/Getty Images for Protect Our Care)

For the vast majority of voters, Israel does not factor into their political calculus. 

“I don’t see Lisa Scheller being able to claim an upper hand on the Israel issue at all, and all of the things that most Jews care about are things that Susan Wild has worked for,” said Judith Lasker, a Democratic voter and a professor emerita of sociology and health medicine and society at Lehigh University.

Wild said at the candidate forum that one of her proudest accomplishments is a bill that allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices, which is meant to lower health-care costs for seniors. 

Scheller told JI that she’s heard the most from voters about energy costs and about crime. She urged Congress to work on increasing natural gas production in Pennsylvania. “If we begin to look at tackling, bringing down the cost of energy through domestic production, we begin to solve the problem internally,” she said. With respect to crime, she pledged to support the hiring of additional law enforcement officers.

While Jewish voters from both parties say it’s exciting that the candidates are Jewish, their religious identity hasn’t been a factor in the race. (Nor have the politics from the race bled into Jewish community institutions; no one is yelling at each other at synagogue about political preferences in a congressional race, observers say.)

“I think if anything, there are people who say, Wow, isn’t that pretty amazing, that there are two Jewish women running against each other for the same seat in the Lehigh Valley. It’s kind of surprising,” Lasker said. “I am sure there are people who are on the outs with friends like everybody is about every bit of politics these days.”

Wild has attacked Scheller for failing to condemn Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, the Republican gubernatorial nominee who has been spurned by many of the state’s Jewish Republicans for his embrace of fringe antisemitic figures and theories.

When asked whether she supports Mastriano, Scheller demurred. “I always think that Republican policies are better than Democrat policies, but with six days out, man, I am just 100% solely focused on my own race,” she said, and declined to say whether she will vote for him. “I really, um, that’s all I’m gonna say on that.” She does not plan to attend a Saturday rally east of Pittsburgh with Mastriano, Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz and former President Donald Trump, who endorsed her. 

Today, the long-shuttered Bethlehem Steel factory houses a casino. Across the street is a trendy arts and music venue, where attendees are treated to an industrial chic vibe with a view — of the steel stacks. 

“It’s still a district with a very heavy manufacturing orientation,” said Dent, the former congressman. “People still tend to have the image of Billy Joel and Allentown and Bethlehem Steel, but the region has evolved considerably and is quite dynamic economically, and has just been rapidly growing. This is one of the more dynamic regions of the Northeastern United States.”

While the population of the Lehigh Valley has grown in recent years, the local Jewish community has gotten smaller. But the community has remained closely connected and engaged in part because everyone needs to pull their weight to maintain a strong Jewish presence in the Lehigh Valley.

The result is “collaboration that you perhaps don’t see in larger cities, where everybody is set up in their own community silo, and here we tend to say that every member of our community wears multiple hats, because they are involved in multiple synagogues, agencies, federation, JCC, et cetera,” said the Jewish Federation’s Gorodzinsky. 

Local Jewish leaders say the Lehigh Valley has not experienced a significant uptick in antisemitism, but in part that’s because Jewish institutions have increased security in recent years. And they’re also pleased to see that antisemitism has not pervaded the campaign.

The candidates’ “duties might be informed by their views and their visions and their Jewish values, but they are talking on issues of great importance for the community, of how they see the economy should happen, how they see reproductive rights,” said Gorodzinsky. “One issue that doesn’t have to be brought up is that they’re Jewish.”

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