New York City’s growing Orthodox Jewish population, the largest outside Israel, may play a decisive role in choosing the next mayor, with some votes turning on regulation of a 1,500-year-old circumcision ritual.
The city’s limits on metzitzah b’peh, in which the mohel who performs the procedure on an eight-day-old boy sucks blood from the cut penis to clean the wound, is an issue of intense interest to the Orthodox, a highly disciplined voting bloc with the potential to sway a tight election.
Circumcision regulation was the first question for mayoral candidates in a May forum sponsored by the Jewish Press. Jewish law requires removal of a male’s foreskin. The Health Board voted in September to require parents give consent for the mohel to suck the blood after 12 babies contracted herpes since 2000, and two died. Of six candidates at the gathering, only Council Speaker Christine Quinn said she’d retain that policy.
“We see it as the first step of interfering with religious practice in general and the circumcision ritual in particular,” said Leon Goldenberg, 60, a Brooklyn real estate agent and Orthodox Jew who describes himself as a progressive Democrat.
In a hotly contested election where a few thousand votes could make a difference, seven Democrats are vying for their party’s nomination in a Sept. 10 primary. It’s probable that no one will win more than 40 percent of the vote, forcing an Oct. 1 run-off between the top two finishers.
With less than three weeks to go, the contest for this bloc of voters has narrowed to former city Comptroller William Thompson, 60, and city Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, 52. Both are from Brooklyn, where almost 80 percent of the Orthodox live, according to state Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Borough Park.
Hikind said he planned to endorse Thompson today. He has known Thompson 31 years, he said last week in an interview.
“Both lobbied me nonstop,” he said. “I’ve had them at my Shabbos table with their wives. Both would be sensitive to the concerns of the Orthodox community, a growing segment of our city’s population.”
New York’s Orthodox population has grown 32 percent in the past 12 years, and now composes about 40 percent of the 1.1 million Jews in the city, according to the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011 from the UJA-Federation of New York.
Orthodox leaders have traditionally influenced the votes of their community, which may constitute as much as 7 percent of the Democratic primary’s voters, said David Pollock, who specializes in politics and government at New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council.
“There is a finite number of places where you can collect votes wholesale rather than retail and the Orthodox community is one of them,” Pollock said in an interview.
So, from the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to the vacation bungalow-colonies in the Catskill Mountains, most Democratic mayoral candidates have designated Orthodox staff members or community leaders, such as Goldenberg, who backs de Blasio, as ambassadors to the insular communities.
In public forums and private meetings, candidates vow to reduce the burden of tuition for Jewish schools by subsidizing bus transportation, security, special-education materials or after-school programs.
Thompson, the only black candidate in the race, was Brooklyn’s deputy borough president before leading the city Board of Education in the 1990s, and served as comptroller, a citywide elective office, from 2002 to 2009.
His father, William C. Thompson Sr., was well-known to the city’s Jews as a Democratic Party leader who represented them in the City Council and the state Senate before becoming an appellate judge. The longstanding relationship tipped the scale in favor of Thompson, Hikind said in explaining his endorsement.
“We’ve worked with Bill Thompson his whole life and we know him,” said Abe Biderman, a resident of Brooklyn’s predominantly Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park. “There’s a comfort level there.”
Speaker Quinn, 46, the frontrunner in most public opinion polls for several months, hasn’t done so well with Orthodox voters, several community leaders said.
The reasons she’s lagging behind in these communities may include her Manhattan-based council constituency, her identification with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who initiated the health department regulation, and because she's a gay candidate married to a woman, according to Jacob Kornbluh, a videographer and writer who publishes a blog about politics in Brooklyn’s Orthodox community. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
“It’s between Thompson and de Blasio because fairly or not, there’s socially too big a space between speaker Quinn and this group of voters,” said Michael Tobman, a former aide to U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. Tobman is now a political consultant who works in the Orthodox community.
It’s not enough for candidates to go to a synagogue, put on a traditional skullcap and talk about supporting Israel, said Tobman. They have to demonstrate an understanding of community needs, and be able to navigate through sectarian differences and rivalries, he said.
Thompson took his campaign last month to the Catskills where hundreds of the city’s Orthodox Jews vacation each summer and, as a guest of honor, threw the first pitch at a baseball game.
While former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner, 48, the only Jew in the race, has a record of supporting pro-Israel and pro-Jewish causes, he has been ensnared in scandal.
Last month, he made the trip from his apartment on South Park Avenue in Manhattan to Borough Park to receive the blessing of Rabbi Moshe Leib Rabinovich, leader of a sect of Hungarian Hasidic Jews. Seated at his side and wearing a black yarmulke, Weiner pledged that as mayor he would “walk with a very light touch” dealing with religious practices.
Thompson has also emphasized his long-held relationships with the Jews of Brooklyn. He likes to sprinkle his speeches with Yiddish words when he’s courting these communities.
“I’ve worked in the Jewish community for decades,” Thompson said after a campaign stop at the Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn. “It’s part of who I am. It’s part of my background.”
On the circumcision issue, de Blasio, like Thompson, has criticized Bloomberg for requiring parental consent without consulting the community.
Bloomberg “tried to impose his will without respect for religious tradition,” de Blasio said at the May 29 Jewish Press forum. He promised the group he’d find a way to “change the policy to protect all of our children but also respect religious tradition.”
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