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Monday, June 22, 2015

A Torah Dedication on Father’s Day

Yesterday's Hachnasas Sefer Torah -  R' Sassoon in center of picture
The following appeared in today’s Chicago Tribune. Very nice coverage of yesterday’s Hachnosas Sefer Torah in honor of Rabbi Gabriel Sassoon who attended the event. I was there for part of it. (Video below - shot with my i-phone) Here is the Tribune report in its entirety:

In Chicago on Sunday, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue welcomed a Brooklyn rabbi who lost seven children in a house fire this year, dedicating seven Torahs, one for each child, to him on Father's Day.

West Rogers Park resident Andrew Glatz helped organize a procession of more than 800 men, women and children of the local Jewish community from his home to Ohel Shalom Torah Center on Sunday for the tribute to Rabbi Gabriel Sassoon, whose seven children died in March. Sassoon's wife and one daughter survived the blaze, which reportedly was started by a hot plate used for cooking in observance of the religious prohibition against lighting a flame on the Sabbath. At the time, Sassoon was away at a religious retreat.

Jewish faithful from throughout the Chicago community took turns inscribing the hundreds of thousands of characters in each handwritten scroll. Sassoon etched the final letters in each scroll before sharing his gratitude with the congregation, Glatz said.

"As a father myself, I don't know how any father could wake up in the morning let alone speak in front of a crowd," Glatz said. "This is fresh. It's not even a year yet. We're hoping that getting the community together to honor his children, that it would give him some comfort."
Though the event wasn't planned in conjunction with Father's Day, members of the synagogue who attended the speech learned that the date also had another sentimental meaning to Sassoon.
"Tonight, it came up that it was the birthday of his oldest daughter," said Rabbi Jack Meyer, of Brooklyn, who helped put together the event through a Brooklyn-based emergency relief and bereavement group called Misakim.

Glatz added: "If this could give him some solace, give him peace and some comfort, then that was the whole point — showing him that we love him and we love his family even though we never met him per se."

Meyer, who responded to the scene of Sassoon's home the night of the fire and assisted in organizing similar events back in New York, said Sunday's procession and ceremony was the first outside of the New York-area for Sassoon's family. It's also the first such ceremony Ohel Shalom has hosted for someone outside of the Chicago community, Glatz said.

Glatz said he hoped that the event held at Ohel Shalom, a Sephardic Jewish community in Rogers Park for about a decade, would inspire unity among the Jewish faithful across the globe.
"We're stepping up to get other communities to step up," Glatz said. "The message we hope the rabbi got was that we are one large community. It doesn't matter if you're from Jerusalem, Mumbai or New York. We in the global community feel that tragedy and feel that pain. That's the whole reason we're doing this today."

Despite the solemn message, the event had a lively and upbeat atmosphere. Outside the synagogue, children played in bounce houses, danced and took pictures with two local firetrucks. The synagogue also hosted a dinner for Sassoon, who didn't want to comment publicly, after the dedication ceremony.

Monday, June 1, 2015

American Pharoah

American Pharoah wins the Kentucky Derby (New Jersey Jewish Standard)
Update: American Pharoah wins the Belmont - and triple crown!

This horse has the chance to win the triple crown. This means winning all three major horse races in America. It has already one the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. If it wins the Belmont, it will be the first horse to win the triple crown since a horse named Affirmed did it in 1978.

That's pretty cool. What's even cooler is that the owner is a Frum Jew who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey. From New Jersey Jewish Standard:

It took American Pharoah barely more than two minutes and two seconds to win the 2015 Kentucky Derby.
For Joanne Zayat of Teaneck, whose husband, Ahmed, owns American Pharoah (and yes, that is how it is spelled), those two minutes and barely more than two seconds stretched out and then blurred and bore little relation to regular time as it usually passes.
There she was — really, there they were, Ahmed and Joanne Zayat, their four children — all Orthodox Jews — and a small crowd of friends and relatives, in one of the owners’ boxes at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, on a glorious flowering spring Shabbat, watching as their horse won America’s most iconic horse race.
How did they get there?
It’s an unusual story.
Although most Jews in Egypt left the country in the 1950s — when its ruler, Gamal Abdel Nasser, made it clear that their lives were likely to be longer, healthier, and happier were they to live them elsewhere — “some affluent Jews stayed, for various reasons,” Joanne Zayat said. That group included Ahmed Zayat’s family.
Mr. Zayat, born in 1962, grew up in Maadi in suburban Cairo. “It was a very mixed neighborhood, with a lot of ex-pats,” Ms. Zayat said. “It looked a lot like here.” To foreshadow a bit — among his pastimes was riding horses at his country club.
When he was 18, Mr. Zayat came to the United States; he went to Harvard, graduated from Yeshiva University, and then earned a joint master’s degree with Harvard and Boston University. A natural entrepreneur, he worked in a number of fields. Among his companies was Al Ahram Beverages, which eventually he sold to Heineken. He did very well.
About 10 years ago, Mr. Zayat retired — or so he said. “He decided he needed to stop traveling,” his wife said. “He wanted to be home with my kids.
“But everyone who knows my husband knows that he can’t be retired for more than 15 seconds. So he decided to take his passion and turn it into a business.”
What did he love? Horses!
“There is a phrase — if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life,” Ms. Zayat said.
“So he decided to go into the horse business.”
Because her husband is a “very zero-to-180 kind of person, he is either not in it or in it to win it,” she said. “So he decided he would go buy some horses.”
Mr. Zayat decided that he would go into the thoroughbred part of the horse business. “When he needs to know something, he becomes engulfed in research,” Ms. Zayat said. “So he learned about it.”
When he began, nine years ago, “he knew a little about horses, but not enough to say at that point, ‘I am a horse maven,’” she continued. “So he started learning about the industry — what it means to buy a horse, at what age to buy a horse, what are the great pedigrees. You want to make sure that your investment is a smart investment.
“He is a very good businessman.”
Looking at the world of thoroughbred racing, Mr. Zayat noticed some things right away. “It is a very old business,” Ms. Zayat said. “It is known as the sport of kings. Many of the families in it are old-time families, like the Vanderbilts.” It’s a high- stakes world.
In some ways, Mr. Zayat’s approach to this old world was new. He uses computer analytics to study all sorts of aspects of breeding, buying, training, and racing horses. He also decided to develop a more broadly based business than most of his competitors. “There are many different elements,” Ms. Zayat said. “There are people who only race horses, who only breed them, people who have only broodmares, people who have only stallions, people who only have babies, or buy babies and sell them.
“He decided that he would have a much more eclectic stable. We have every end — we have broodmares, racing horses, stallions, and babies.”
Thus Zayat Stables was born.
Experts at their stables — and there are many, each specializing in a different part of the same world — decide which horses to keep and which to sell, which to train for turf and which for grass, and which to pair with which trainer. “Each racehorse — every horse — has a personality,” she added. “We have to know what kind of personality it is.”
The stable, only eight years old, started big and has stayed big.
“We bought 25 horses the first time,” Ms. Zayat said. “We probably have one of the biggest stables in North America. We keep the babies — anywhere from 20 to 25 of them — in a stable in Florida, and then they go to the trainers to learn how to become a racehorse.”
Note her use of the word “we.” It is a family business; the Zayats’ oldest child, Justin, 23, “has worked in the business more or less since he was in 10th grade.” He is now graduating from New York University, and “he is our stallion and racing manager. He and my husband work hand-in-hand as far as doing financial analysis and race analysis.” Ms. Zayat works in the business as well.
The next oldest child, Ashley, who is married to Glenn Weiss, owns a costume jewelry business called Point Ashley — named after her family’s first winner, a horse also named Point Ashley, after her. Benjamin is a sophomore at the Frisch School, and Emma is an eighth-grader at Yavneh.
Not only has computerized data analysis changed horse racing, Ms. Zayat said, but so has social media.
Zayat Stables has owned a remarkable number of winners in the nine years since it opened, including three Kentucky Derby runners-up. (It is a mean feat to get a horse into the Derby — they must qualify by winning enough of the right races. It is not a berth that can be bought. “There are probably 30,000 three-year-olds across the world, and only 20 horses make it to the race,” Ms. Zayat said. “It is an honor even to get your horse into the Derby.”) It also has developed and nurtured a strong fan base.
“My husband and Justin are very aware of the fan base,” Ms. Zayat said. “You have to keep them apprised of what’s going on.
“People follow our horses on Twitter and Facebook.
“A couple of years ago, we had a horse named Paynter. He was a wonderful horse, but he got sick after a big race one summer, and we had to take him home and out of racing all summer. We put a tremendous amount of time and energy and finances into him, because we wanted to do right by the horse.
“If you do right by a horse, the horse will do right by you. A horse is not a machine.”
Paynter had many fans, and his illness worried them.
“Our fans were concerned, so we decided that we would keep them apprised,” Ms. Zayat said. “And then Paynter became like a cult. They would send him pictures and letters. It became like Paynter was a person. A group went to visit him, and took pictures of him.”
Paynter came back the next summer, and his fans were overjoyed. “It was like he was the comeback kid. It was a crazy feeling; after the race, people would say to us, ‘You don’t know what Paynter means to me.’
“He really caught the hearts of so many people,” she said.
It’s okay. This story has a happy ending. Paynter is now a stallion at the family’s Winstar Farms in Kentucky, happily siring the new generation of aspiring racehorses.
The Zayats try to give their horses names that have some meaning, “something to do with our lives or our friends,” Ms. Zayat said. “Justin decided that he wanted to do a contest with the fans. They could submit names, and we would pick one.
“A woman from Arkansas submitted American Pharoah.” He’s named in homage to Ahmed Zayat, who was Eyptian to start with and is American now.
This woman, the anonymous horse-namer, clearly was very good with history and allusion, but spelling seems not to have been her strong point. She misspelled Pharaoh, putting the o in front of the a. After the family chose it, “Justin cut and pasted the name from her email, and sent it to the Jockey Club.” (The club vets the names, and rejects those that are already taken or considered somehow offensive.)
“We never thought about it — and now people ask if there is a reason for that spelling,” Ms. Zayat said. “But it was just cut and pasted!”
American Pharoah was particularly dear to the Zayats even before he won the Derby, because he is the stable’s first second-generation winner. “American Pharoah’s dad, Pioneer of the Nile, was our very first home-bred winner, and he was the runner-up in the Kentucky Derby,” Ms. Zayat said. “He was nipped at the wire” –in other words, his victory was snatched from him. “We bred him with Little Princess Emma” — named after the family’s younger daughter — “and American Pharoah got revenge for his father.”
What is it like being Orthodox Jews at the Kentucky Derby? “There is no conflict,” Ms. Zayat said. “Most of our big races are on Saturdays, so we walk to the track.”
They stay at a hotel in Louisville, which is an easy walk on race day, and get kosher meals, including full Shabbat dinners, from a caterer, “but for the Preakness and the Belmont we can’t walk from any hotel, so we rent a trailer.” It’s not just a regular old RV; “It is 45 feet long, has two bathrooms, has a full kitchen and dining area, and sleeps six to eight people.
“Shabbes is still Shabbes. You are still getting gefilte fish for dinner,” she said.
“I think that when you are true to yourself, and you have a strong value system, people respect it.
“This is a free country, and people get that.”
As exciting as she finds horse racing in general, Ms. Zayat considers the Kentucky Derby to be particularly thrilling. “It attracts such a diverse and interesting group of people,” she said. “There are Derby groupies, who spend all year making their hats and getting their outfits together. There are men in floral suits, and women in crazy outfits. There are people who are there either because they are in the industry or because they are Kentuckians, and this is what Kentuckians do.
“Hank Aaron is there, and Bill and Hillary Clinton have been there, and Michael Phelps, and Hugh Hefner. It goes from the president of Visa to Ogden Phipps to people who own stallion farms to racing families to the loved ones of people in the industry.
“We like that it is a family thing for us. We all travel together for all the big races. We go together as much as we can. It is not just a business. We are close to our trainers and their families. That’s part of what makes it nice.
“Yes, it’s big business, but it’s also a humanistic thing. We all know each other’s kids. We have watched each other’s kids grow up.”
“Being in the Derby is the dream of a lifetime,” Ms. Zayat said, but for her, it is a recurring dream. Zayat Stables has had at least one horse in the Derby almost every year since its second year in the business.
May 2, Derby day, “was business as usual,” Ms. Zayat said. They were not the only group to walk from the hotel — traffic and parking both are nightmares, so many people avoid it. “It was a beautiful day. We walked down the street toward Churchill. It’s a pretty stadium. Everyone was trying to sell souvenirs, and security was checking bags, blocking off streets.”
Once they reached the stadium, the Zayats and their guests peeled off from the spectators. “We sit in certain dining rooms. We have viewing boxes. Churchchill is a huge track, and it is very well organized.”
The day goes by. There are 12 races on Derby day, and the Derby itself is the 11th to be run. (It helps with crowd control to have another race after the big one, so not everyone tries to leave at once, Ms. Zayat hypothesizes.) “As the day progresses, there is more time in between each race,” she said. Tension builds.
After the 10th race, “most of the owners go to the barns,” where the staff would have taken the horses out “and start to prep them for the race, to freshen them up,” she said. “They take the horses out, the trainer and the assistant trainers and the grooms and the owners, and you walk with them on the track if you choose to.
“We always walk our horses from the barns all the way around the track to the paddock, where they are saddled.” (“We,” at this race, was “me, my husband, all four children, and our guests, maybe 20, 25, 30 people.”)
“The crowds are roaring as you are passing by. People are yelling ‘Go, American Pharoah, we love you!’ They are trying to pat you. They wave at you. You talk to them. They are screaming and hooting. There are zillions of TV cameras.
“It is fun. It is exciting. It is exhilarating. It is show time.
“Everyone dresses up. I wore a pink suit with a hat. I don’t wear heels, but a lot of people do.
“You go to the paddock, and every owner is in front of his horse. It is jam packed. The horses go into the carrel to be saddled. The jockey, Victor Espinoza, is a great guy. I said, ‘Come on, I promise you a home-cooked meal if you bring this home to me.’ And he said, ‘Mrs. Zayat, just sit back and watch the show.’”
The race finally started. “It is only two minutes — but it is the most exciting two minutes in sports history every year,” Ms. Zayat said.
“They are coming down the stretch, and I see Firing Line and Dortmund coming down, and I see American Pharoah coming, and he’s behind them, and then they are neck and neck, and I say that I can’t. I can’t do this again. I can’t come in second again. The other times we lost at the wire. And I become hysterical. And I start to cry, this emotion of ohmigod.
“And then the next thing I know, I hear that American Pharoah and Victor Espinosa have won the Kentucky Derby.
“And then you go in five seconds from despair to elation. It was an out-of-body experience. It was crazy. And then they hustle you off to get your trophies.
“You don’t know how much time has passed. It could have been a long time. It could have been a short time. I don’t know. They brought us to the podium, they brought us to a cocktail party.
“This is ours. This is a real Zayat horse. There is something really special about it. It’s still surreal now.”
When you look at horses, Ms. Zayat said, there is a lot of science; “numbers, anatomy, genetics,” and much more. But there is also the emotional component. “The objective and the subjective have to meld together.
“And I know that this is the horse.”

Update: ...and then there's this:

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Israel and the Arab Nations - A Necessary Alliance?

Mudhar Zahran
An article Israel Hayom by Mudhar Zahran, a Palestinian Arab living in England speaks for itself. Even though this paper is owned by the politically right wing American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, I believe that what Zahran is saying may very well be the case. And maybe the not so secret view of Arab leaders in the region. If true, it could very well change the course of history. The article follows in its entirety

For some time, there have been voices within U.S. intellectual and academic circles that question how vital Israel is to the U.S. Some openly wonder whether Israel has done anything good for the U.S., or if Israel is actually important at all to American national interests. Such voices, while few, still manage to utilize a very effective anti-Israeli propaganda machine, for example the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, as well as some academic institutions that have chosen to turn themselves into enemies of the Jewish state. Their main argument is: What do we need Israel for?

Of course, those voices get a lot of support from us, the Arabs. We Arabs have been claiming for seven decades now that Israel is the source of all evil. Some of our rulers have been saying this to the Western media for decades. Basically, we claim that if Israel disappears, our lives will become wonderful and iPhones will grow on the trees in our backyards.

Nonetheless, facts on the ground suggest that these claims could not be further from the truth. Let's see why.

It is no secret that the Obama administration has had a very difficult relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Nevertheless, Israel has become more vital to American interests than ever, for the following reasons:

First, Iran has been expanding its power in the region, as a result of decades of intelligence work and recently because of unprecedented U.S. tolerance for it. While the U.S. is negotiating with Iran, one of the U.S.'s leverage points is the fact that it is keeping Israel from launching a pre-emptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, as Israel did to Saddam Hussein's reactor in 1981. Whether we agree with the usefulness of U.S. negotiations with Iran, one thing remains certain: The U.S. would have had a much weaker negotiating position had it not been for Iran's fear of a looming Israeli strike.

Further, with the Islamic State beast expanding in the region, many of the U.S.'s closest Arab allies could fall easily under Islamic State's sway if not for Israel. For example, given that Islamic State sympathizers have a base in southern Jordan, and control Jordan's border with Iraq and almost a third of Jordan's border with Syria, why is Islamic State not attacking Jordan? It knows it will have to face Israel if it harms Jordan's security, because Israel will not tolerate Islamic State in Jordan and threatening the Jordanian-Israeli border.

In addition, Islamic State would not dare make advances to southern Syria toward the Golan Heights, again, knowing that this would draw Israeli opposition. Instead, it has focused its operation far from Israel and into north-central Syria and western Iraq. This has limited Islamic State operations to particular areas and kept some of the U.S.'s most important allies safe.

It is true that the U.S. has the strongest military on the planet, and some of the most dedicated, patriotic and well-trained soldiers. But Israel has the regional experience, the know-how and the stamina to keep Islamic State at bay and fight it if necessary.

While the U.S. has many militarily strong Arab allies, those allies lack the one thing Israel has -- democracy. This means that you never know who will be in power tomorrow in those countries. Nor could the U.S. guarantee their stances toward it or toward terrorists. Today's moderate dictator could always wake up tomorrow and decide to go to war. Let's not forget that Saddam had been America's ally until the very morning he invaded Kuwait.

With unrest, chaos and uncertainty sweeping the Middle East, Israel remains one of the very few stable, strong and predictable American allies in the region.

As for us Arabs, while most of our governments would not admit it, we know that Israel is the only Levant force capable of keeping Iran at bay. Iran has strong control over Iraq and the Syrian regime, and as a result, both countries are a mess today. We Arabs can also see the brutality with which Iran's militias have fought the Sunni Muslim Arabs in Syria and Iraq, and how Iran has been trying to destabilize the peaceful kingdom of Bahrain. It is in our best interest to have Israel around as it would actually walk the walk when it comes to confronting Iran's ghoulish ambitions for controlling our region, which we cannot confront alone. And thus we might someday find ourselves in a direct open alliance with Israel to fight it.

At the same time, Arab Muslims in the region know that if, God forbid, Islamic State becomes stronger than it already is, Israel is the only party capable of stepping in and destroying or at least limiting their advances.

Some Arab governments already realize that Israel is a necessity. We might hate Israel -- we might curse it day and night -- but that does not mean our intellectuals and sane ones want it gone, as each area that Israel leaves falls under chaos, trouble and even Iranian influence, be it in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip or the West Bank.

Let's not get confused here -- we Arabs are most likely going to keep hating Israel and Jews for decades to come. Still, we may have reached the point where we publicly admit that Israel is a better partner than our so-called Muslim brothers in Iran, Syria or elsewhere.

After all, a strong Israel has never threatened us without a provocation, while Iran is burning up Syria, dismembering Lebanon and destabilizing Bahrain. Iran would also be threatening Saudi Arabia from Yemen, were it not for the tough and pragmatic Saudi deputy crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, who decided to lead the fight on Iran's militias there.

An Iranian expansion into Arab states would destroy us Arabs and severely damage American interests and national security. Israel is now the only sane regional power capable of stopping Iran. Iran knows this and thus has limited its harassment of both Arabs and the U.S.

If Israel were to disappear tomorrow, Iran would be in Jordan, Bahrain and even Kuwait the next morning.

We Arabs, along with some Americans, can demonize Israel all we want, but deep down we know we are lucky to have Israel around at such a critical time. We have to admit that, as much as we may not wish to do so.

American voters, taxpayers and legislators should also realize that supporting Israel means supporting the U.S.'s interests to the fullest.

Mudar Zahran is a Jordanian-Palestinian who resides in the U.K.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The New Political Clout of Orthodox Jews

Republican candidate Ted Cruz now studies the weekly Torah portion
The following article by Nathan Guttman appeared in the Forward today. Have we Orthodox Jews become a real force in politics - despite our tiny numbers?

Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have long appreciated the importance of tapping into the pool of Jewish donors, who are among the most generous political contributors in the nation.

But until recently, Orthodox Jews have been an elusive target.

Like their Democratic counterparts, Republican candidates chose to go after more secular — albeit more conservative — Jewish donors, many of whom were hawkish on Israel; a demographic embodied in the old-line Republican Jewish Coalition, founded in 1985.

But now, Republican hopefuls from the right end of their party’s spectrum are beginning to discover the potential of a separate new breed of Orthodox Jews — wealthy enough to make significant donations, secure enough to pronounce their conservative social preferences and fueled by their anger at the Democratic administration’s policy toward Israel.

The emergence of these new donors has moved libertarian-leaning candidate Rand Paul to take interest in the Talmud studies of yeshiva students; it has motivated Ted Cruz to read up on the weekly Torah portion, and it has sent Jeb Bush to a Modern Orthodox high school to celebrate Israel’s independence day. Outreach to the Orthodox community is no longer a novel idea in the Republican camp — it has become a must.

Tevi Troy, a former official in the administration of George W. Bush and a leading voice among Orthodox Republicans, described the dual attraction Orthodox donors have, especially to candidates on the right end of the Republicans’ already conservative spectrum: “Orthodox Jews like the story Republicans have to tell on Israel,” he said, “and at the same time they’re not frightened by the Republicans’ social agenda.”

Described by some as “Modern ultra-Orthodox,” these potential new donors and activists are, according to a longtime Orthodox political operative, typically “very successful in business, very prosperous, with a yeshiva background and deeply involved in public life.”

It’s a description that fits Richard “Kasriel” Roberts perfectly. Roberts, who is now viewed as the biggest Orthodox name in Republican political giving, lives in an ultra-Orthodox enclave of yeshivas and synagogues in Lakewood, New Jersey. In the previous presidential election cycle, he gave $750,000 to the pro-Romney super political action committee Restore Our Future and $1 million to Treasure Coast Jobs Coalition, another Republican Super PAC. His total political giving in the 2012 elections exceeded $2 million.

This time around, Roberts has been spreading his support between the libertarian-leaning candidate Rand Paul and Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, a potential presidential candidate who has yet to declare his intentions.

In 2013, Roberts invited Paul to visit his home and a nearby yeshiva in Lakewood, and accompanied and funded the senator’s trip to Israel the same year. Paul’s views on Israel have been so cool that he was shunned by the RJC, but they have warmed considerably. As he toured the Lakewood yeshiva, Roberts described him as “real” and “authentic.”

On April 27, Roberts’s courtship with Paul continued at the offices of Torah Umesorah, an association of religiously right-leaning Orthodox day schools headquartered in Brooklyn. During a meeting with Paul that Roberts sponsored there, the GOP candidate focused almost exclusively on Israel and the Iranian nuclear deal. Only one participant asked about schools, an issue where Paul’s stand in favor of government-funded vouchers for private schools pleases many Torah Umesorah members.

“He was personable and funny,” said Jewish activist Yaacov Behrman, who attended the meeting. 

“His goal was to quash fears about his views on Israel.”

Roberts also supported Walker generously in 2012 and gave him another $10,000 in 2014. The Wisconsin governor, who famously faced down his state’s public employee unions, has had to work at learning his Jewish political vocabulary. As a Milwaukee County executive prior to becoming governor, he confused one of the most basic Jewish expressions with an incendiary device, wishing a state GOP official “Molotov” for the upcoming holiday of Hanukkah. But his strong conservative credentials and his support for Israel have caught the eye of donors like Roberts.

Walker has also proposed radically boosting the role of private school vouchers in his state education budget, which would for the first time allow an unlimited number of students to use taxpayer dollars to attend private schools.

Roberts, who is a doctor, made his fortune as a pharmaceutical entrepreneur. Since selling his company for $800 million in 2012, he divides his time between philanthropic activity in the local Orthodox community and campaign finance activism in Republican politics.

“Obviously I don’t come from the standard yeshivish background. I went to the yeshivas of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania,” Roberts joked in a videopromoting Lakewood. He called living in Lakewood a “wonderful privilege” that those who lived in an ultra-Orthodox environment all their life may not appreciate. “We certainly don’t want them going out into the secular world and seeing how bad things are in so many other places,” Roberts added.

Roberts did not respond to calls from the Forward.

Black yarmulke donors such as Roberts are no longer a rare sight in the Republican Party. For years, donors such as California venture capitalist Isaac “Yitz” Applebaum or telecom executive Howard Jonas were reliable mainstays from Modern Orthodox communities. Now, the push is on to register the more conservative elements of the Orthodox community.

Israel has served as a catalyst for these donors’ involvement in the GOP. But a sense of shared conservative values is providing an additional foundation. The mutual affinity on this front was highlighted April 27, when Agudath Israel of America, which represents large parts of the ultra-Orthodox community, filed an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, urging justices not to allow same-sex marriage.

The battle over same-sex marriage has emerged as the main social issue uniting Orthodox Jews and conservative Republicans. For reasons tied to nuances in traditional Jewish religious law, the GOP’s emphasis on restricting abortion rights has resonated less with Orthodox Jews.

The Orthodox community is also not overly concerned about separation between religion and state, and actively supportive of social conservatives on issues such as government funding of parochial education.

There is one final factor in the growth of Orthodox givers: the growing affluence of some members of this community.

“Now, in 2015, you have more Orthodox individuals who are more affluent than in past years and more interested in being politically active,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center.

When it comes to voters, as distinct from donors, the Republicans’ stepped-up outreach to Orthodox supporters at first glance defies demographic reasoning. The Orthodox community, according to the 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, makes up only 10% of the Jewish community, which, in turn, represents a little more than 2% of American voters.

But these numbers tell only part of the story. Because of higher birth rates and stronger denominational retention, the Orthodox share in the Jewish community is on the rise, and among those under the age of 18 they represent 26% of American Jews.

Politically, Orthodox Jews have bucked the broader Jewish liberal trend and currently lean strongly to the right, with 57% identifying as Republican and more than half identifying as conservative. Among the ultra-Orthodox, almost two-thirds say they are conservative.

But the Orthodox role in Republican politics has been stifled in the past by demography and geography. The community was viewed as too small to have an impact; moreover, with most Orthodox Jews living in heavily Democratic districts, their voting Republican made little difference. For the Republican Party it was a question of priorities.

And for Orthodox Jews, especially those identified by their black hats and referred to as ultra-Orthodox or Haredi, political activism has traditionally been directed at local issues of immediate concern to their community: support for parochial education and for the social services on which many Haredi families depend. These interests led to strong communal ties to the mostly Democratic elected officials in their districts, regardless of broader political approaches.

But today, said Jeff Ballabon, a prominent Orthodox Republican activist, “it’s no longer only domestic concerns like school choice and

‘Orthodox Jews… will be very involved in shaping the [2016] Republican race.’
vouchers, but also protecting Israel.”

Recently, the broken relationship between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the two leaders’ dispute over the nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran made the stars align for Republicans and Orthodox supporters. The feeling that Israel is in dire need of a more supportive administration has driven members of the Orthodox community to step out of their comfort zone and back their already existing sympathy for Republican values with votes and major gifts.

“Orthodox Jews are growing as a segment in the Jewish community… I believe the community will be very involved in shaping the [2016] Republican race,” said Nick Muzin, deputy chief of staff and senior adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz.

Muzin knows this well from his own experience. A doctor and lawyer by education, Muzin was born in Canada, where he attended top yeshivas in Toronto. He later attended Yeshiva University in New York. Muzin is the man behind Cruz’s full court press towards the Orthodox community. The Texas senator, who has been the most visible among the candidates in reaching out to Orthodox supporters, told Politico that he shares “a great many values with the Jewish community and the Orthodox community.”

Muzin, who spends much of his time on the road with Cruz, takes off for the Sabbath, during which he stays with local Jewish communities. Cruz, he said, always wants to know about the weekly Torah portion and tries to work it into his speeches. “He is a religious Christian and has an affinity to the Jewish community,” said Muzin, who described the candidate’s attitude toward the Jewish people as “a natural kinship.”

Ballabon, who identifies with the conservative wing of the Republican Party, believes that Orthodox Jews like himself should be at the center of the party’s outreach to Jewish voters and donors. “I want to be an agent of change in these elections, telling people that as much as they don’t want to admit it, partisanship regarding Israel is a long-standing reality and it’s a mistake to ignore it or whitewash it,” he said.

Though a bit behind Cruz and Paul, other players in the field are also now looking to this community for votes and cash. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who is expected to announce his candidacy and who enjoys the backing of several key GOP Jewish establishment figures, visited New York’s prestigious Ramaz School, an Orthodox day school, to mark Israel’s independence day on April 23. In a closed-door question-and-answer session with the upper-school students, Bushcriticized the Iran deal negotiated by the Obama administration as “naive.”

For now, the battle within the GOP is focused on donors, with RJC donors tending to back politicians representing the party’s establishment, such as Bush and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Orthodox donors leaning to candidates on the populist right, including Cruz and Paul.

Thanks to the relaxation of political funding regulations, and to the introduction of super PACs, even just one wealthy backer can play a game-changing role in sustaining a candidate through the grueling primary process.

Meanwhile, as voters, the role that Orthodox Jews can play is limited at this stage. “Clearly, Republicans are not investing in Orthodox Jews in order to win Iowa or New Hampshire,” Troy said, referring to the first two states to elect their candidates, both with insignificant numbers of Orthodox Jews.

But in the general election, the focus will likely shift. While the large majority of Orthodox Jews live in heavily Democratic states such as New York, New Jersey, Illinois and California, where their votes may have no impact on the outcome, there are two states where they might: Florida and Ohio.

This is not just Orthodox wishful thinking. Political observers in the community look to an analysis of the 2004 presidential election, when George W. Bush won the state of Ohio on his way to beating Democrat John Kerry. Looking through the voting records precinct by precinct, it was clear that Kerry lost because of weak support in the Cleveland suburbs. And within those suburbs, those with large Orthodox Jewish populations went clearly to Bush.

Thursday, April 2, 2015