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.
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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  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  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, Bush criticized 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.