No American election in living memory elicited the same passions as the 2004 American presidential election, with partisans on both sides convinced that a victory for their opponents would signal the end of the world. The closeness of the 2000 election only intensified the battle over every vote.
The Orthodox community was no exception to the heightened excitement surrounding the elections. For the first time ever, the Lakewood Vaad endorsed a particular candidate -- President George W. Bush – "in consideration for his outstanding positions on family issues, domestic security and of significant consequences for Acheinu B’nai Yisroel in Eretz Yisroel." Every Orthodox rabbi in Cleveland, led by Rabbi Chaim Stein, Rosh Yeshivas Telshe, signed a Kol Koreh calling on every Orthodox Jew to vote, and on the Shabbos preceding the election, every congregational rabbi in Cleveland stressed in his drasha the importance of voting.
Rabbi Yehiel Kalish, Midwest regional director of Agudath Israel of America, logged thousands of miles in the last week of the campaign, in the key state of Ohio, traveling between Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati on voter registration and getting out the vote activities. And his colleague, Rabbi Moshe Matz, the Southern Florida regional director of Agudath Israel, was busy doing the same in southern Florida, another crucial state. Agudath Israel of America got involved in voter registration efforts to an unprecedented degree out of a feeling that it would be a chilul Hashem for Orthodox Jews to sit on the sidelines in an election perceived as so vital by the American public, and especially after the 2000 elections demonstrated that every vote does count.
The frenzy of activity peaked on election day. In the Telshe Yeshiva community in Cleveland, Bais Yaakov students set up an ad hoc babysitting center in two stores so that mothers could drop off their younger children while they voted. A network of volunteer drivers was set up to take voters to polling places. In Lakewood and Florida forces were similarly mobilized to get out the vote on election day.
WHEN THE VOTES WERE TALLIED, it became clear that Orthodox Jews had turned out in large numbers, and that they had voted overwhelmingly for President Bush. That support for the President grew stronger as one moved rightward on the religious spectrum towards the close-knit Chassidic communities. Despite the theological anti-Zionism in the latter, the concern for the well-being of Jews in Eretz Yisrael remains overwhelming. Thus in Kiryas Yoel, a Satmar community in Sullivan County, New York, President Bush won 88% of the vote – 6314 to 529 (with the votes for Senator Kerry attributed to internal communal divisions.)
Al Gore Jr. carried Rockland County by 21,000 votes in 2000; this year George Bush carried it by 1,301 votes. That swing was largely attributed to the heavy Orthodox vote for the President. In New Square, for instance, President Bush won 99% of the vote; in 2000 he captured only 21 votes in New Square. When asked to explain the shift, the Skverer Rebbe answered, "hakaros hatov." In those election districts in Rockland County in which Orthodox Jews comprise more than 50% of the eligible voters, the President captured 84% of the votes.
In Lakewood, New Jersey the communal efforts of fifty campaign workers (without direct support from the national or state Republican parties) paid off heavily for Bush. Though New Jersey went for the Democratic candidate, President Bush carried Lakewood by better than two to one. In the 12 election districts with a majority of Orthodox voters, he won 85% of the vote, and in the one exclusively Orthodox district, he won over 99%. One wag joked that it was doubtful if the President did better in his own family.
Similar patterns were repeated in other heavily Orthodox areas. The Bush vote increased by 80% in Boro Park and over 100% in Flatbush. Both had gone heavily for Gore in 2000, and this year swung into the Bush column.
THE FRENETIC POLITICAL ACTIVITY up to and including election day was the culmination of a three-year-old vision of one man: Jeff (Yehoshua) Ballabon, an Orthodox Jew from West Hempstead New York. The Forward recently named Ballabon one of the fifty most influential Jews in America. The Forward’s citation credited him with having "basically created a new demographic this election cycle [w]ith a groundbreaking outreach event during the Republican National Convention [that] helped put his fellow Orthodox Jews on the map as a separate Republican constituency" and described him as a "charismatic advocate of politics as an outgrowth of Torah . . ."
Ballabon, 41, has long been active in Republican politics. After graduating Yale Law School, he worked on the staff of Senator John Danforth, now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. For more than a decade he has been guiding corporate clients through the labyrinth of government in Washington D.C. and various state capitals.
A little more than three years ago, he began to look for a way to connect his political activity more directly to his life as a Torah Jew. He found himself increasingly discontent with all the extant models of Jewish political activity, which are based on a view of Jews as an ethnic community with certain interests they strive to protect through political activity. Ballabon’s first insight was that Jews should function in every way, including the political sphere, as a faith community, and that the values they should be promoting are those of the Torah.
Ballabon, who had met then-Governor Bush in Austin in 1999 and had the chance to spend a few minutes talking with him, felt confident that his personal commitment to faith and values was profound, as was his feeling of respect, even affinity, towards the Jewish people and faith. Ballabon worked on the Bush campaign in 2000. Soon after he was elected, despite winning only 19% of the Jewish vote, President Bush began to prove his friendship.
Two events in close proximity triggered Ballabon’s search for a new type of Jewish political activity. The first was the U.N. sponsored Durban Conference on Racism in late August and early September of 2001, and the second was 9/11, just a week after the conclusion of Durban. Ballabon was particularly moved by the fact that President Bush, alone among major world leaders, refused to send an American delegation to the U.N. Conference on Racism at Durban, which quickly degenerated into an anti-Israel hate fest. In that refusal, President Bush signaled that he attributed no moral legitimacy to resolutions passed by the U.N. General Assembly, which has long since become a debating society for the passage of anti-Israel resolutions. And 9/11 brought home that there are fundamental value cleavages in the world, a point President Bush emphasized when he described as an Axis of Evil the major state sponsors of terrorism – Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.
Ballabon’s second insight was practical, not philosophical. Only someone firmly planted in both the Torah world and that of values-based politics could be the bridge for Torah Jews to the larger political world. Otherwise the conversation across the table would always be ones between strangers, each seeking to advance particular interests, not a conversation of allies searching for common ground. As a graduate of Yeshiva Ner Israel, and someone who has always been very open about his religious observance in both his political and professional life, Ballabon was suited to that task.
He grew up in a home in which Kiddush Hashem was a constant theme. His maternal grandfather, Dr. Menachem Distenfeld, was raised as a Chortkower Chassid in Lemberg, Poland. As a young man, he traveled to ask the Rebbe where he should study for semichah, Warsaw or Vienna. To his amazement, the Chortkower Rebbe told him to go to Vienna and become a doctor and that it would "save your life as well as that of many others." And so it was. He and his wife were removed by the Nazis, ya"sh, from a group bound for the death camps so that he could treat Poles suffering from typhus. And after they escaped into the forests, they were spared by the no less virulently anti-Semitic Ukrainian partisans, who had need of a doctor.
In 1945, in Czernowitz, Dr. Distenfeld and his family arrived as refugees on a cold erev Shabbos, knowing nobody. Crowds of Jews hustled past immersed in their own lives, but one man – the Skulener Rebbe – who was walking by, immediately turned and came over to the small group standing lost on the street. On the spot, he took Dr. Distenfeld and his family into his own apartment, and a lifelong bond was formed. The Skulener Rebbe was the father to hundreds of ravaged war-orphans, and Dr. Distenfeld was their doctor. In the United States, after the war, when the Skulener Rebbe had to travel for his health, Dr. Distenfeld always traveled with him, often spending weeks as his companion.
Although Dr. Distenfeld passed away when he was still very young, growing up, Yehoshua heard constant stories of all the chesed that his grandfather did for people, such as paying for the medicine of those who could not afford it and pretending that their pills were manufacturers’ samples.
Just as his grandfather had used medicine as his vehicle for Kiddush Hashem, so Ballabon decided he would use political access. As a kippah-wearing Jew in the public limelight, he found himself constantly presented with opportunities to correct distortions of Judaism by so many who claim to speak in its name. Evangelical Christians and traditional Catholics in particular were always thrilled to meet a Jew who could reassure them that there are still Jews today living according to the precepts of the Torah.
ONCE HIS VISION of Torah-based political activism had taken form, Ballabon confronted two tasks. The first was to convince the political players within the national Republican Party that there are hundreds of thousands of Jews like him, who share many common goals with faith-based constituencies within the Republican Party. Reaching out to the Orthodox community, Ballabon argued repeatedly, is not just a matter of having a kosher table at a Republican Jewish event. Orthodox Jews, he explained, view life and politics from a completely different perspective than their secular Jewish counterparts.
The second task was to convince his fellow Orthodox Jews that politics need not be a realm that one enters only at the cost of one’s soul. While government cannot help us raise moral children, he pointed out, it can prevent certain forms of moral pollution that make the task of Orthodox parents much more difficult. Only government, for instance, can redefine marriage in such a way as to undermine all Torah morality.
WHILE MANY WERE ENTHUSIASTIC about Ballabon’s ideas, two in particular have become his partners. The first, Gedalia Litke, a New York attorney and like Ballabon a Ner Yisroel product, already had made a name for himself in Orthodox circles by founding Kayama, an organization that encourages divorcing non-Orthodox couples to obtain gittin. When Ballabon, back from Washington, wanted to bring his vision to the community and its leaders, it was Litke who made the introductions and helped him establish his bona fides.
The second, a few years younger than Ballabon, was Michael Fragin, today New York Governor George Pataki’s liason to the Jewish community. Already emerging as a young askan, Fragin was looking for a more defined and active place from which he could make a significant and positive impact on Jewish political life. Fragin quickly was persuaded by the "Kiddush Hashem" vision of politics and immediately put his enormous energy and encyclopedic knowledge of the Jewish community to work.
Together with friends like Litke and Fragin, Ballabon formed ROSHEM, the Center for Jewish Values, in order to introduce Torah Jews to politicians, and to sell the possibilities of political action to observant Jews. Through ROSHEM, Ballabon introduced politicians with a strong social conservative message – e.g., Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania – to successful Orthodox professionals and business people who could support their political campaigns.
At the same time, Ballabon was a whirlwind of activity promoting his vision of Torah-based political activism across the spectrum of Orthodoxy. He participated in roundtable discussons at conventions of Agudath Israel of America, in which he discussed ways to approach social issues within the guidelines of Da’as Torah in order to maximize the Kiddush Hashem message, while at the same time, not diminishing the uniqueness of Torah. He also addressed the national convention of the Orthodox Union and the rabbinical training conference of the National Council of Young Israel. And he began promoting his political vision to leading Orthodox writers. Always the message was the same: Politics is not just the art of the deal. It can be about values as well.
By constantly stressing moral values, Ballabon was able to make the Orthodox community into a more significant political player than its numbers would warrant. There are fewer than half a million Orthodox voters – hardly a large group in a national election (though not insignificant if the election turns on a few hundred votes). But as a new demographic group focused around issues of values, Orthodox Jews were highly sought after by important constituencies within the Republican Party. Ballabon’s personal experience in Washington confirms that principled action is often the most practically effective. His influence has grown as he has been perceived as a person of conviction and integrity than someone who merely buys and sells access.
Though he did not then know it, he was following in the path of the greatest of American Orthodox askanim, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the long-time president of Agudath Israel of America. In discussions with politicians, Rabbi Sherer always confined himself to the principles of the issue on the table at that moment. He never engaged in horse-trading. That insistence on principles generated much of the respect in which politicians held him.
THE SELLING OF BALLABON’S VISION CULMINATED at this year’s Republican National Convention when the Republicans became the first party ever to host an event specifically aimed at Orthodox Jews. (See Mishpacha, "The Republicans Woo Orthodox Jews"). That event, which he and his allies coordinated, signaled that the Republican Party had finally absorbed the message that Orthodox Jews are different. For years he had been hammering home the point that many Orthodox Jews are supportive of the President’s broader domestic agenda, not just his foreign relations agenda, and therefore the pitch to the Orthodox community has to be broader than the traditional one to Jews stressing the Republican Party’s commitment to a strong and secure Israel. All the speakers at the Waldorf-Astoria event were prepped in advance to talk about religious values and to convey that the support of Orthodox Jews is important to the party because of shared values.
At the same time, Ballabon emphasized to Republican politicians that Orthodox Jews are, in fact, the most intensely concerned with Israel’s security of any Jewish group, and far more sophisticated about Israel’s security needs than the average Jewish voter. They would not be satisfied with slogans about a "strong and secure" Israel, but would want to hear how Israel fits into the speaker’s overall world view on such topics as the war on terror and relations with Europe and multinational organizations. The audience at the Waldorf-Astoria, Ballabon explained, would be listening closely to how the speaker placed Israel in a broader context of values, both religious and democratic.
As Ballabon had foreseen, only Orthodox Jews themselves could do the groundwork for such an event and ensure that the broadest possible spectrum of the leadership of Orthodox Jewry be represented. The textbook strategy for such campaign events is to make sure that all geographic regions are represented. But in the Orthodox world, geography counts far less than such factors as what Chassidic group one belongs to or at which yeshiva one learned. And those matters are not included in the briefing book of even the best prepared campaign.
Ballabon, Michael Fragin and two young men with yeshiva backgrounds -- Zev Safran and Michael Bleicher -- devoted many long nights to compiling a list of all the major Orthodox groups and working the phones to make sure that they would be represented. Geography, and the concerns of the campaign were not ignored entirely: They made sure that rabbis from or with strong connections to Florida, Ohio and other "battleground" states were present.
Nor was the Republican outreach to the Orthodox community confined to the Waldorf-Astoria event. Senators Rich Santorum of Pennsylvania and Norm Coleman of Minnesota visited OHEL, the largest Orthodox social service agency in Boro Park, and from there walked around the corner to the Novominsk Yeshiva to meet with three members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel of America – the Novominsker Rebbe, Rabbi Aharon Schechter, and the Mattersdorfer Rav. They witnessed the work of Hatzoloh and learned how Torah Jews ran into the conflagration at the Twin Towers to save lives. That evening Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis gave an emotional invocation at the Republican convention, in which she connected her experiences as a child of the Holocaust to her support for President Bush.
THE WALDORF-ASTORIA EVENT demonstrated that Ballabon had sold the Republican Party on at least testing his vision. But his theories still had to be proven on the ground. In the last weeks of the campaign, Ballabon and Fragin put their jobs on hold in order to spend 20-hour days with a Jewish outreach team in Florida on get-out-the-vote efforts, and coordinating by phone similar efforts in Ohio, and New Jersey, which polls showed suddenly to be "in-play."
At the same time, they did not ignore New York, the state with by far the highest concentration of Orthodox Jews. Even though there was no doubt that New York’s electoral votes would go to Senator John Kerry, the Orthodox vote in New York was still critical from Ballabon’s point of view. First, because he knew that it was important to the President not only to win the electoral vote, but also the popular vote, and remove any lingering questions of the legitimacy of his presidency left over from the 2000 election, in which Democrat Al Gore Jr. won the popular vote.
In addition, the many election districts in New York in which there are heavy concentrations of Orthodox voters provided the test cases to Ballabon’s theories, and he knew that the Washington political gurus would be looking closely at those districts. The election would be won or lost in Ohio and Florida, but the battle for Kiddush Hashem was just as important in New York.
During the hectic final weeks of the campaign, when there was little time for reflection of any kind, there were still moments that reinforced Ballabon’s vision three years earlier that politics too could be a vehicle for Kiddush Hashem. One was when a Jewish contemporary working as a senior policy advisor in the Administration told him that he had come down to work in Florida because, brought up in a secular home, he had long wanted to find his Jewish identity, and he knew that he could best do so by being exposed to the Orthodox community.
For Jeff Ballabon, the satisfaction and relief he felt as he went to sleep early in the morning on election eve was not yet complete. That would only come over the next two days, as precinct level results poured in from around the country and showed that Orthodox Jews had voted in unprecedented numbers and overwhelmingly for President Bush.