By Larry Gordon
You hardly ever saw the Orthodox Jewish former senator from Connecticut, Joe Lieberman, going about his official duties while wearing his yarmulke. That is, unless he was speaking at an overtly frum event like a parlor meeting here in the Five Towns. The last time I saw him was at the Chabad Kinus HaShluchim, an annual event that brings emissaries from around the world for an intimate dinner for 4,000 or so attendees in New York. Last year, Lieberman was the keynote speaker and he was yarmulke-clad for the event.
Today there are a good number of elected officials in various legislative bodies who can be obviously identified as Orthodox by their yarmulke. At the same time, there are probably a greater number of Jewish elected officials who do not wear the kippah for whatever reasons, most probably so as not to publicize their Orthodoxy or have it associated with their public personas as elected officials.
New York State Assemblymen Dov Hikind and Phil Goldfeder, State Senator Simcha Felder, and New York City Council Members David Greenfield and Chaim Deutsch, who represent large Orthodox communities, wear their yarmulkes wherever they go—even though their districts also have within them non-Jewish communities. Then there are those who are also members in good standing in frum communities, like Assemblyman David Weprin, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and others whom you hardly ever see on official government business wearing their yarmulkes.
So what exactly is the yarmulke factor and how does it fit into both election campaigns and government service? Despite the reality that stiff prejudices have to a great degree fallen to the wayside—L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling notwithstanding—there seems to be a sense among yarmulke-wearers that when they are seen or identified as wearing a yarmulke they are being somehow instantly profiled or stereotyped.
Which brings us to a possible political race here in Nassau County next November that may have two yarmulke-wearers running against one another. With the retirement of NYS Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg recently announced, Dr. Asher Mansdorf—as reported here last week—has made it known that he is interested in running for the seat in the Assembly as the Democratic candidate. Dr. Mansdorf is up for reelection on the school board on May 20 with no significant opposition. A substantive win in the school-board election could be a determining factor in his decision to run for the Assembly in Albany.
There is also some speculation that a popular Republican operative associated with several elected Republican officials on Long island—Avi Fertig—is also being urged to run by his colleagues. No definitive decision has been made on his candidacy as of our deadline for this article.
Last week, Todd Kaminsky, a former assistant U.S. attorney who resides in Long Beach and is close to Weisenberg, visited our offices to talk about his being a candidate for the same seat. Kaminsky was wearing a yarmulke when he arrived at my office, but as we spoke I learned that he never attended yeshiva and was a member of a Reform congregation in Long Beach. Now that is all perfectly fine and good, but I could not help wondering why Kaminsky chose to wear that yarmulke. He is not Orthodox, and this was not a religious ceremony or function, so it was really not expected. I suppose he thought that we are a respected Orthodox Jewish publication so out of deference he might as well wear the kippah. I did not discuss the matter with him but nevertheless found it intriguing. Kaminsky will most likely not be wearing the yarmulke on the campaign trail except if and when he makes an appearance in a shul or some similar venue.
But it is another matter completely with the other candidates. The fascinating potential here is that there might be two Orthodox Jewish candidates from opposing parties running against each other come November. This is all taking for granted the political reality that people have a tendency to vote for those who share their same religion, race, or gender regardless of the candidate’s policies or agenda.
I work with an African-American gentleman who has related to me more than a few times that he voted for President Obama both in 2008 and 2012 primarily because he was the black candidate. He only confided to me recently that he thinks he made a mistake because Obama policies, he said, have failed African-Americans more than anyone else.
So how does this all play out with Orthodox Jews? I think we have a tendency to vote for members of our own community and tribe, but we also take into consideration policies and, if possible, past performance. In Dr. Mansdorf’s case, he has been out there as a pioneer on the Lawrence District School Board and as a president of that board during rather contentious and trying times.
For his part, Mr. Fertig is an effective liaison with the Jewish and other communities for Town of Hempstead officials like Senior Councilman Anthony Santino and Supervisor Kate Murray. Fertig has worked closely with Nassau County Legislator Fran Becker and continues to work closely with Howard Koppel, an Orthodox county legislator.
If wearing a yarmulke on the campaign trail leads to a mild or even minimal brand of profiling, does that help or hurt a candidate? Certainly, the situation where Orthodox candidates run for elected office against one another has been very rare. There was a short time some years ago when both Dov Hikind and former city council member and now judge Noach Dear were thinking about vying for the same Brooklyn congressional seat, but that never came to pass.
There may be two things at play here. One is that aside from the frum community in the Assembly district being split between Democrats and Republicans, we may have to choose between two candidates wearing yarmulkes. Dr. Mansdorf will, if he chooses to enter the race, have to participate in a September primary against Mr. Kaminsky (who has already been endorsed by Weisenberg) and possibly additional candidates yet to announce their candidacy.
If Fertig, the Republican, decides to run, it is unlikely that he will have any intraparty competition. On the flip side of that coin, and most interestingly, is how the non-Jewish community would vote for a state assemblyman with both candidates displaying their Orthodoxy by wearing kippahs.
This is a somewhat superficial if not cosmetic analysis of what the yarmulke on top of a politician’s head mostly represents these days. It should and indeed does mean a great deal more for many. Perhaps those who do not wear their yarmulke when “on duty” may have their hearts in the right place by not wanting to have any part in a potential chillul Hashem. These situations arise sometimes when partisan politics wins out against an elected official’s beliefs and convictions and very often positions and policies that attracted voters to him or her in the first place.
This race—Mansdorf v. Fertig—might be breaking some new ground, but at the same time representation in Albany by those from within the community is not a new thing. Each potential candidate brings interesting backgrounds to the table. Kaminsky, as a U.S. attorney, has, amongst other things, prosecuted corrupt politicians. Mansdorf has battled for factions in the school district that transcend race or religion. And Fertig is a campaign veteran who might be ready to run his own race.
As of this date, the players are jockeying for position. One thing, however, is certain: with Weisenberg’s retirement, the race to replace him in Albany—with the yarmulkes on or off—is on. v
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