NEW YORK – When news networks finally called the election for former Vice President Joe Biden on Saturday morning, loud cheers were instantly heard in the streets of New York City. Yet as thousands took to the streets to celebrate the Democrats’ win, the atmosphere in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in the region wasn’t as festive. This was partly due to the timing of the news, coming as it did on Shabbat, but also because many had supported President Donald Trump’s bid for reelection.
Although no data has been released on the percentage of Orthodox Jews (both Haredi and Modern Orthodox) who eventually voted for Trump, a poll published last month by Ami Magazine found that 83 percent of Orthodox respondents intended to vote for him, with just 13 percent saying they would back Biden. This is a complete opposite of the broader trend in the wider Jewish community, where Biden won more than 70% of the vote nationwide.
Eli Steinberg, a resident of Lakewood, New Jersey, was one of the community’s many Trump supporters. He told Haaretz earlier this week that the result leaves him “a little bit apprehensive about the next four years.” Steinberg, who describes himself as a conservative, said religious liberty is his top issue when voting.
“The Obama years – I didn’t see them as a good time for religious communities in America, and I don’t have any reason to think that Biden would govern any differently,” he said.
The 36-year-old said he hadn’t gone into Election Day with any great expectations that Trump might pull off another shock win. However, he said that for a while last week, as the results trickled in, he started to believe the incumbent could indeed triumph. Even though the president ultimately lost, Steinberg expressed relief that President-elect Biden’s victory was not a landslide win, “with this grand mandate for change and the ability to make grand change.”
As he put it, “because it looks like Republicans will still have a majority in the Senate,” neither party will be able to impose its policies due to control of the Senate, House of Representatives and White House being split. Steinberg said he believed this was the best possible outcome from this year’s elections.
Borough Park resident Alex Rapaport, 42, experienced different emotions when he turned his phone on last Saturday evening as Shabbat concluded. He was delighted to learn that the election had been called for Biden.
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Over the past four years, he has expressed his opposition to Trump on several occasions on social media. “I think it was the second or third day in the campaign and he said something against Muslims and I went to city hall to demonstrate,” he recalled, of Trump’s initial run for the White House. “According to the polls then, he had no shot – but just to have that sort of conversation in America was bothersome.”
The past few years, Rapaport said, were “a lot of hard work and a lot of scars.” More than once, he encountered opposition from people on WhatsApp groups and fellow residents who didn’t like his social media posts against the president. “It took way too long [to count the vote], but I’m happy that it’s over,” he added.
Rapaport, who runs the Masbia soup kitchen network, is part of the seemingly small percentage of Orthodox Jews in his Brooklyn neighborhood who didn’t vote for Trump. Last month, as protests took place in Borough Park over the city’s handling of the coronavirus and its decision to prevent religious gatherings during a Jewish holiday, many signs and flags were seen in the crowd supporting Trump’s reelection bid.
“People were heckling me or threatening my organization,” Rapaport told Haaretz, adding that he didn’t mind being part of the minority. “If I’m Jewish, I’m a minority. If I’m religious Jewish, I’m a minority. If I’m Haredi Jewish, I’m a minority – so how does being in the minority scare me?” he asked.
As Rapaport sees it, many of his fellow Orthodox community members are “in an echo chamber of misinformation.”
He added: “It saddens me that so many are being conned into believing that [Trump] is really a savior to them.”
One of the most prominent Trump supporters in Brooklyn is controversial community activist Heshy Tischler. He was arrested recently for allegedly inciting a riot during last month’s Borough Park protests. His Twitter name is currently “Heshy-Elect.” He tweeted Sunday: “Can you imagine how Biden voters are going to react once PA gets flipped? They’ll be rolling over in their graves,” repeating the unproven accusation that votes were cast on behalf of dead people.
He followed that on Monday by writing: “There is no president-elect yet. Even the term president-elect used right now is just a media fabrication.”
Another pro-Trump Orthodox personality, Joel Fischer, tweeted Tuesday: “Don’t laugh at kids that believe in Santa. We actually have adults who believe that Democrats are honest.”
Others in the community expressed outrage that crowds were allowed to publicly celebrate Biden’s win on Saturday, claiming a double standard from New York authorities who a few days earlier had shuttered Orthodox neighborhoods affected by COVID-19 upticks.
State Assembly member Simcha Eichenstein retweeted a video of the street celebrations, writing: “The record must reflect that government repeatedly said no to outdoor gatherings when Orthodox Jews sought permission to conduct outdoor religious services.
“Whether you are celebrating or not, it should trouble everyone when First Amendment rights are applied selectively,” he added.
‘Mend the divisions’
While leading Republicans are refusing to concede the election and backing Trump’s assorted legal efforts, Orthodox Jewish organizations congratulated Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris after the result was called.
“With campaigning now over, we look forward to working with all Americans to mend the divisions in our society and bring the country together to overcome the current challenges we face,” the umbrella organization Orthodox Union said in a statement on Sunday afternoon.
The organization added that it “looks forward to working with President-elect Biden and his incoming administration on matters of critical importance to our community.”
According to the OU, these include the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on ultra-Orthodox life, education, religious liberties and antisemitism, as well as a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and Iran.
Agudath Israel of America, meanwhile, sent a “warm congratulations” letter to Biden and Harris on Monday. The letter, signed by Rabbi David Zwiebel, stated that the organization has “always enjoyed close working relationships with the White House, irrespective of which political party happens to be its occupant. We similarly look forward to working closely with you and your administration in the weeks and years ahead.”
It concluded: “May the Almighty bless you in all that you do as you lead a great nation forward in these challenging times, our heartfelt prayers are with you.”
Despite most media outlets calling the election for Biden, Trump of course is still refusing to concede, making repeated (unsubstantiated) accusations of voter fraud. Though Steinberg didn’t think the outcome of the election would change, he said he believes the president “is going to have his day in court. He has the right to that – it’s America.”
He also defended Trump’s response to losing. “Hardly anything Trump does that makes people clutch their pearls hadn’t been done before already, and even to him,” he said. “Hillary Clinton was saying just a few weeks ago that Joe Biden should never concede. She was saying until recently that the  election was stolen from her because of the whole ‘Russiagate’ thing.”
Rapaport was less sanguine about Trump’s response, but said he wouldn’t have expected anything else. “When the people at the debate asked him, ‘Will you leave peacefully?’ – even if he had said yes, I wouldn’t have believed him,” he said.