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North Texas Jews Approach Politics as 'Healing the World'

By Catherine Cuellar, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX –

Catherine Cuellar, KERA 90.1 Reporter: In a new citizens' class at the Jewish Community Center in Dallas, more than two dozen Russian seniors are registering to vote for the first time in the U.S. A translator asks volunteer Lori Stahl about the ballot.

Translator: He remembers in Russia, on the bottom, there is a line against everybody. Is this the line here on the ballot?

Lori Stahl, voter registrar and Temple Emanu-El member: No, I've never heard of that before.

Cuellar: Through Temple Emanu-El, the oldest Reform congregation in Dallas, Stahl has become deputized to register voters. She is joined at the JCC by Susan Cooper.

Susan Cooper, voter registrar and Temple Emanu-El member: I've always wanted to be involved in the political process. It's a very American, very democratic thing to do. I feel that as a person, a human being, and as a Jew, it involves me in a very large way in tikkun olam, in repairing the world.

Cuellar: The Jewish theological concept of tikkun olam means "to heal the world." In Orthodox Judaism, there's an emphasis on ritual. The Reform tradition focuses on everyday actions. Jewish political views are tied to their cultural experience as an immigrant minority, according to Temple Emanu-El's Rabbi David Stern.

Rabbi David Stern, Temple Emanu-El: The Jewish self-perception as immigrant is both historical and theological. So it is true of our historical experience - being denied land ownership in various places and therefore moving from place to place - but it's also true of our theological self-understanding. Time and time and time again, the Hebrew Bible says, care for the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. That sense of having been slaves, of having been outsiders, of having been marginalized, doesn't just stand as a footnote of historical experience, it stands as theological imperative.

Cuellar: In a Deep Ellum art gallery, young adults mingle at a Jewish Community Center-sponsored event. Among them is 26 year-old Mark Shrayber. He emigrated from Russia when he was 11 and has been a citizen less than a decade. But unlike many of his U.S.-born contemporaries, this spring he traveled from his home in Dallas to D.C., where he and 1400 others from around the country lobbied politicians on Capitol Hill through United Jewish Communities.

Mark Shrayber: You know, the primary reason I went is obviously 'cause I'm Jewish, and I want to be involved, and I want to be educated. It was an incredible experience. They talked about a slew of issues. I'm a big fan of helping other people, worrying about health care - not just about the rich, 'cause I came from nothing.

Cuellar: Although he lobbied elected officials from both parties, Shrayber is a Democrat, as most Jewish people nationwide have been since FDR. But in North Texas, the Jewish community is increasingly politically divided, according to the past president of Temple Beth-El in Fort Worth, Judy Greenman.

Judy Greenman, past president, Temple Beth-El: I think we have seen a division in the support of who we support. You certainly cannot say we're strictly Democratic. There are certainly a lot of people who've gone to the Republican side; they like it for business, for all kinds of reasons. Israel is one of them, and certainly Republicans have made a big point, especially Mr. Bush, that Israel wouldn't be what it is without him. Some agree and some don't. Some of us look at Israel as another country. We certainly like to support it, but we're not all as Zionistic as people assume there.

Cuellar: The Republican Jewish Coalition believes that Jewish support for GOP candidates will only increase, according to Dallas chapter president Dr. Craig Rosenfeld.

Dr. Craig Rosenfeld, Dallas Chapter President, Republican Jewish Coalition: Whether congressional or presidential, it's really only two issues: Israeli security and the war on terror. Other issues that the Jewish community has focused on in the past, domestic issues, are really of secondary importance.

Cuellar: Two pro-Israel members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Martin Frost and Pete Sessions, are pitted against each other in District 32, where many members of the north Dallas Jewish community live. Jews regret they will lose one of the congressmen after the election, according to Larry Ginsberg, national vice president of the American Jewish Committee.

Larry Ginsberg, Vice President, American Jewish Community: My sense is that the community is probably split down the middle on this. Congressman Sessions has been a great friend of the Jewish community. He's been a great friend of Israel. Congressman Frost is Jewish, also a friend of the community, also a friend of Israel. And there's a lot of pain in the Jewish community because one of these two men will not be in the Congress next year, and this is very sad.

Cuellar: Along with Israel, church-state separation is an important issue. Rabbi Ralph Mecklenberger is at Temple Beth-El in Fort Worth.

Rabbi Ralph Mecklenberger, Temple Beth-El: The First Amendment's goal was to keep the government from impinging on religion, not to keep religious values from being expressed in the public sphere. We need Jews and Christians and atheists and so on all to bring their values in order to then develop better policy and better law.

Cuellar: As a Fort Worth public relations commissioner and retired public school government teacher, Karen Anisman would like clearer separation of church and state. Before joining Temple Beth-El in Fort Worth, she was a Southern Baptist.

Karen Anisman, Temple Beth-El member: And it concerns me to hear politicians use language that I recognize as being faith-based language in political campaigns, because I feel that what they'e doing is often not making a political speech but preaching a sermon. I think they leave out many people in the United States when they do that 'cause they represent typically only an evangelical or fundamentalist point of view.

Cuellar: But Craig Rosenfeld with the Republican Jewish Coalition says church-state subjects like private school vouchers polarize the Jewish community as much as any other.

Rosenfeld: I really don't see a Jewish position on separation of church and state. It depends on the particular issue, and depends on which part of the Jewish spectrum you're talking about, because there may be a difference between Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism.

Cuellar: Different branches of Judaism also disagree about abortion, but most Jewish people consider themselves pro-choice, according to Rabbi Steve Gutow.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, of the Reconstructionist Minion of St. Louis, MO and founder, National Jewish Democratic Council: Even the most Orthodox Jewish community, which would oppose abortion, would not do it because they thought that the taking of a fetus was the taking of a life. There's actually verses in Exodus that would say it isn't a life.

Cuellar: Gutow was a lawyer in Dallas before he started the National Jewish Democratic Council in 1990. This year he became a rabbi. He's seen that a candidate's personal faith is not a key determining factor for most Jews.

Gutow: We're deeply-believing Americans with all kinds of political beliefs, systems, ideas and opinions, and to peg anybody that we'd support just because they're Jewish seems a little bigoted.

Cuellar: Participation in the democratic process is one way Jews strive to heal the world for the benefit of all citizens. In turn, they hope that regardless of an elected official's personal beliefs, those politicians will respect and protect Jews as well as all citizens.


Email Catherine Cuellar about this story.

This story is part of KERA's Voter's Voice 2004 coverage. Click here for more on Voter's Voice 2004.