Roz Rachlin stands at the podium making announcements and introductions to about 115 other members of Beth El Temple in West Hartford. The crowd, mostly retirees, are lunching on noodle kugel, salad and chilled poached salmon topped with dill sauce, all catered by the Crown Supermarket, the gastronomical heart of Connecticut's largest Jewish community. They're all here for the monthly lunch program of the Chai Society, which in this case is Hebrew for ``living,'' as opposed to the spiced tea steeped in milk served down Albany Avenue at Starbucks. Today's guest is Mark Silk, a Trinity College professor who speaks to them about religion and public life, and it couldn't be more relevant given that Silk has walked deep into Joe Lieberman country.
Chai Society members talk about ``Joe,'' Connecticut's incumbent U.S. senator, as if he's family. They still kvell about the moment six years ago when Al Gore picked Lieberman as his vice presidential running mate, making him the first Jew on a major party ticket. Though Lieberman lost the Democratic primary last August to political newcomer and anti-war candidate Ned Lamont, forcing the senator to run as a petitioning independent candidate, most in the room here are standing by him come Nov. 7.
You might think Lieberman would have a lock on the Jewish vote in his home state. Indeed Beth El's Rabbi James S. Rosen, who was in Israel during the primary, said Israelis were shocked at the results. They couldn't believe that Lieberman, an observant Jew known for not campaigning or working on the Sabbath, hadn't received at least 98 percent of the Jewish vote, instead of the 61 percent a New York Times/CBS exit poll said he captured. This obviously means that more than one-third of Connecticut's Jewish voters in the primary rejected Lieberman. Even 18 years ago, the last time Lieberman ran in a competitive race, when he upset then-incumbent Sen. Lowell P. Weicker, 45 percent of the Jewish vote went for Weicker, according to a CBS News exit poll.
The split in the state's Jewish community of 125,00 actually should come as no surprise. Interviews with Jewish political strategists, academics, party insiders, voters, rabbis and Jewish community leaders suggest that the so-called Jewish vote no longer stands as monolithic as it might have been 50 years ago, if it ever was. ``We Jewish people tend to disagree all the time. Every page of Talmud has disagreements,'' says Rabbi David Avigdor, leader of Bikur Cholim Sheveth Achim, an Orthodox synagogue in New Haven, and a personal friend of Lieberman's.
Certainly such social factors as the higher rate of intermarriage, dwindling religious observance and greater acceptance into America's melting pot, have eroded the degree of ethno-religious identity that Jews feel compared to even a generation ago, say experts who study the American Jewish community.
And on issues, growing divisions continue within the Jewish community not only over the war in Iraq (although a majority oppose it), but on certain hot-button domestic issues where many progressive Jews believe Lieberman's votes were just plain wrong.
Even on Israel, though it may seem counterintuitive, many Jews who support Lamont say they believe the war in Iraq has left Israel less secure, not more so. As evidence they point to the ease with which Iran shipped missiles to Hezbollah, in part, so the argument goes, because Iran bet that the U.S., distracted in Iraq, would not or could not react. ``The question is this: Is Israel in a better situation today than it was five years ago and is the general state of unrest in the region to Israel's advantage?'' asks David Pudlin, a Lamont strategist, former state House Majority Leader and active member of Temple Sinai in Newington.
The question of the connection between Israeli security and the Iraq war echoes the debate begun last week after a classified report from U.S. spy agencies said the war is spreading radicalism throughout the Middle East and increasing the overall threat of terrorism. The Bush administration has disagreed with that assessment.
It's unclear how the Jewish vote will divide in the general election. Political insiders are predicting everything from ``a tight race'' to a ``75-25 split'' for Lieberman. Nevertheless, despite the small size of the community -- Jews make up 3 percent of Connecticut's population and 4 percent of the electorate because they have such a high registration rate -- some political analysts say, like the election itself, the results of the Jewish vote could also become a national bellwether for the 2008 presidential race.
Meanwhile, with little more than five weeks before Election Day, the campaigning continues across the state and within its Jewish community.
Bob Tendler, a 72-year-old consulting pharmacist, is active at Temple B'nai Israel in Southbury. He's on the board of the local branch of the Jewish Federation, an agency that supports a vast array of Jewish services in western Connecticut. He and his wife, a nurse, returned last month from a medical mission to Israel, for which he feels a deep connection. And he's actively supporting Lamont.
Until the primary, Tendler, who is also chairman of the Southbury Democratic Town Committee, always voted for Lieberman. After the senator ran for vice president in 2000 and re-election for his Senate seat at the same time, Tendler's support began to wane, as the Southbury Democrat questioned whether Lieberman was paying enough attention to his Connecticut constituents. The turning point came three years ago last spring, when Tendler's son, Jeremy, then a sergeant in the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division in Iraq, managed to call his father, with a complaint and plea for help. His troops, many in tanks, were getting only one 16-ounce bottle of water per solider a day, as they endured temperatures of 125 degrees. Tendler called the senator's office. But Lieberman's staff dismissed the complaint, according to Tendler. ``They said, `I'm sorry, you must have bad information. That's not happening,''' Tendler recalled.
A spokeswoman for Lieberman's Senate office, Casey Aden-Wansbury, said his staff has no ``specific record or recollection of speaking to'' Tendler about the matter. She said Lieberman receives many calls and letters from active-duty military and their families. ``He takes each one seriously, and he does everything he can to answer their questions and help them ... Fortunately there are many success stories among them,'' she said.
Tendler is among the 67 percent of Jewish voters polled in the primary who want the U.S. to begin removing troops from Iraq soon. But like others opposing Lieberman, he ticks off several other issues that convinced him it was time for a change. He mentions Lieberman's refusal to back a filibuster against President Bush's Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito; his support for emergency legislation in an attempt to save Terri Schiavo's life; and his comment that Connecticut's Catholic hospitals that refuse to give contraceptives to rape victims shouldn't be forced to do so.
Other liberal Jews echo that criticism, and ironically, they believe that Lieberman's hawkish foreign policy stands actually are not in Israel's best interest. One of them is Judith Resnik, a professor at Yale Law School and active at New Haven's Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel, a Conservative synagogue. A frequent visitor to Israel, she has taught courses at Israeli universities and has many close family members living there.
``Israel is far more vulnerable now, as we saw in the conflict with Hezbollah, than it was before the terrible mistake of the Iraq war. To the extent that voters of whatever political or religious persuasion are seeking stability in the Middle East and protection of lives ... the policy of George Bush, supported largely by Joseph Lieberman, has done a disservice, not a service.''
Her rabbi, Jon-Jay Tilsen, known for his far-to-the-left politics, also supports Lamont. Still, like some, he admits to feeling ``a lot of ambivalence.'' After all, he says, Lieberman is ``a known quantity,'' but ultimately the rabbi says he believes Lamont, an Episcopalian, ``would be better for the interests of all of us, including the Jewish community.''
Of course, many Jews disagree. One of them is Tilsen's colleague, Rabbi Avigdor of the Orthodox Bikur Cholim Sheveth Achim. ``I've always been a Democrat and I've always voted for the Democratic Party, but I'm very disappointed that the fringe of the party voted for Lamont,'' he says. ``I feel terrible grief when I see a solider, especially from Connecticut, come back from Iraq in a body bag. I regret that terribly. I understand that Lamont and his supporters want to be done with the war. But life is not that simple. Life is very complicated, and I don't think the American public is aware how serious this battle is,'' he adds, referring to what he sees as a general war on terrorism.
The war notwithstanding, the rabbi says, Lieberman, who has prayed at his synagogue, should be re-elected. ``He's an honest man, a very decent man. He does what he says. It's mind-boggling. A politician who actually says he doesn't believe we should pull out of Iraq and [was] losing in the polls [in the primary], and still sticks to his guns. Anyone else would have flip-flopped just to save his seat.''
Michael Kassen, a 53-year-old Westport investor, whose wife, Shelly, is a town selectman, first met Lieberman in 1993. He's contributed to Lieberman's campaign since then, and he wonders why anyone, Jews included, would not support the senator. A member of the national board of the American Israel Public Relations Committee, or AIPCAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group, as well as a board member of major New York Jewish agencies, Kassen agrees with Avigdor.
``Forget Israel for a second,'' says Kassen, who considers Lieberman one of the Senate's leading voices for the Jewish nation's defense. ``I just believe he understands that we live in a very dangerous world that unfortunately is becoming more dangerous and that we have to have what I would call an engaged and vigorous and muscular foreign policy.''
Other Jewish supporters of Lieberman voice concern about whom Lamont, as a political newcomer, would consult, were he to win. One of those worried is Daniel I. Papermaster, a Hartford lawyer, who serves as counsel to the Lieberman campaign. He, like many more moderate Jews, were taken aback when they saw Lamont on the podium the night of the Aug. 8 primary, flanked by the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, as well as U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, all seen as representing the far-left wing of the party, and which moderate Jews say can't always be counted on to support Israel. Some Jews also can't forget Jackson's anti-Semitic remark in 1984 when he once called New York ``Hymietown,'' for which he apologized, or Sharpton's role in inciting anti-Jewish violence in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in the 1990s.
Ironically, Lieberman had kind words for Jackson six years ago when the civil rights leader stumped for him and Gore, and for Sharpton in 2003 when both of them were part of a presidential primary debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus and Fox News.
In the end, however, the Jewish vote is unlikely to be the deciding factor in the Senate race, although if it's close, and recent polls suggest it could be, those votes could make a difference. L. Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs at Colby College in Maine, says he wouldn't be surprised to see Lieberman win 75 percent of the Jewish vote, given that those who voted for him in the primary will almost certainly be joined by many Republican and moderate, independent Jews.
Still despite the divisions within the Jewish community, which largely underscores a historic split between progressive and centrist Jews, the real question is what will it all mean the day after the election.
Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and a leading analyst of contemporary American-Jewish trends, says: ``What we're seeing in Connecticut is emblematic of the tensions within the Jewish community.'' If Lieberman were to lose, centrist Jewish Democrats -- the old Scoop Jackson Democrats strong on foreign policy and defense issues -- might begin supporting moderate Republicans. These Jewish voters could sense that the Democrats are no longer a big-tent party, but one more interested in embracing their extreme left wing. And that softening of support for the Democrats could have major implications for 2008.
That's an argument also being trumpeted by the Republican Jewish Coalition. The group has run full-page ads recently in the weekly Connecticut Jewish Ledger, claiming that the radical left ``with its antipathy toward Israel, its indifference to anti-Semitism, and its desire to appease terrorists instead of fighting them is now gaining control of the Democrat Party. It's time to ask yourself: Does the Democratic Party still represent you?''
Under Sarna's scenario, if a John McCain, for example, were to become the GOP nominee in 2008, running against a far-left-leaning Democrat, the kind supported by MoveOn.org, the national progressive coalition instrumental in helping Lamont win the primary, many moderate Jewish Democrats might well feel they're no longer wanted in the Democratic Party.
``If they do, the question is whether the Republican Party invites them in and tries to recapture that center in hopes of broadening a coalition that brought George Bush to power ... That's why this is such an important election,'' says Sarna.
The political calculus gets even more interesting: Although the Jewish vote nationally is small -- about 4 percent of the electorate -- it remains significant in battleground states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which could well determine the next president, Sarna says.
Others say such an analysis is unlikely. It's true, says Maisel, director of Colby's Goldfarb Center, that nationally prominent Jewish leaders and donors have moved toward the Republican Party, but that's not the case as much among average Jewish voters.
Indeed, the percentage of Jews who support Democratic candidates remains extremely high, says Maisel, who notes that John Kerry got 81 percent of the Jewish vote, ``and I think Jews will continue to support the Democratic candidate.'' Granted there could be a pairing of a liberal anti-Israel Democrat against a moderate pro-Israel Republican, in which the Jewish support for the Democratic candidate drops significantly. But Maisel says, ``I don't see that happening. The Republicans won't nominate a moderate and I don't think the Democrats will desert Israel.'' As evidence, Maisel notes that Republican Senate nominee, Alan Schlesinger, also a Jew, is struggling in the polls with virtually no support from the Jewish community or his party, which has all but endorsed Lieberman.
So what can we learn about the upcoming election between Lieberman and Lamont? Until the results come in, it's only speculation.
What's all but certain, strategists agree, is that Jewish voters from places like West Hartford's Chai Society are likely to strongly support their ``Joe.'' Unknown is how their baby-boom-generation sons and daughters and even their voting-age grandchildren, likely to be sipping chai, the tea, will vote.
If Lieberman loses, says Maisel, ``it doesn't say anything about Israel or the Jewish vote (in part because Lamont too has come out in support of Israel). But it does say a great deal about the war in Iraq.''