Avi Hadria and Xandra O’Neill have never met, but they have a few things in common. Both he and she are the parents of young children, and each is concerned about what kind of country their kids will grow up in.
Both are absolutely certain which presidential candidate is suited to bring about a better tomorrow. Or, more to the point, both know who they don’t want to see guiding the country’s future.
That’s where their similarities end.
Mitt Romney “does not act like a man who understands how his decisions impact anyone other than himself and those like him,” O’Neill said while attending a Chabad Sukkot event at the Kaiserman JCC on the Main Line last month.
“That is not the right kind of person to help the American people through the suffering that so many are experiencing,” the 29-year-old health-and-wellness coach from Bala Cynwyd said while holding her 2-year-old daughter Chloe.
In contrast, Hadria, a 48-year-old Israeli sabra now living in Huntingdon Valley, has a negative take on President Barack Obama: “Look at the whole Middle East. He didn’t do one good thing.”
Pushing his 5-month-old daughter, Eliya, in a stroller at another Chabad-sponsored Sukkot event last month in Northeast Philadelphia, Hadria said the passage of the health care law had also alienated him. “This country cannot be like Europe, socialist — it doesn’t work.”
Over the past month, Jewish Exponent reporters conducted interviews at a variety of communal events in the city and suburbs. While far from scientific, the interviews offer a glimpse into the minds of local Jewish voters. One thing appears certain: Even those who aren’t overtly political are engaged in this election, even if they’re not quite inspired.
The 2012 battle for the Jewish vote has been waged under a media microscope — perhaps even more so than in past elections — with millions spent on such a small but potentially influential swing electorate.
This time, though, Pennsylvania hasn’t received as much attention from Jewish partisan groups as in the past, with its status as a swing state in the last months of the campaign less clear. Other places, like Florida, Ohio and Nevada, have been the primary targets of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which spent more than $5 million targeting Jewish voters.
The story of Obama and the Jews — which began during the campaign leading up to his 2008 election and has been covered incessantly by mainstream publications — has intensified during the president’s time in office as he developed a tense relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and disagreements emerged between Jerusalem and Washington over Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the Iranian nuclear threat.
Supporters of the president point out that Obama has also presided over a period of unprecedented military cooperation between the United States and Israel and that he’s backed the Jewish state in the United Nations.
Pundits have obsessed over the question of just what percentage of the Jewish vote Obama will get this time. In 2008 — a campaign in which questions also were raised about Obama’s support— exit polls showed him receiving 78 percent of the vote, though pollsters later said it was actually closer to 75 percent.
A September national survey of more than 1,000 Jewish voters by the American Jewish Committee reported that 65 percent of respondents supported Obama, while 27 backed Romney and 10 percent remained undecided. Both Republicans and Democrats have said an eight-or 10- point swing in the Jewish vote could prove crucial, especially in Florida.
American elections are, in some sense, about more than who wins and who loses. The drawn-out process, at its best, provides a window into people’s concerns, what they care about, what they would most like to see happen and what they are most afraid of.
“Am I going to get a job when I graduate?” wondered Sacha Samotin, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, as he munched on dessert following a recent program about the election at the National Museum of American Jewish History.
The Florida native is no stranger to politics. He took time off from Penn to work for the failed presidential campaign of moderate Republican Jon Huntsman. With his chosen candidate out of the race, he struggled to pick between Obama and Romney.
“I know that they’re both incredibly intelligent men and I don’t think that either of them has offered serious plans to fix the economy or to end the gridlock in D.C. that’s crippling the country,” said Samotin, who said he ultimately settled on Obama and has already cast an absentee ballot to be counted in his home state.
For 31-year-old Todd Henken, the chief concern is foreign policy and America’s place in the world.
“After Bush’s shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach, I’m concerned about Romney saying that the United States should shape world events, instead of being part of a world that is responsible to each other,” the musician said during a presidential debate-watching party sponsored by J Street and held at a Center City pub.
The AJC survey found that the top issues for American Jews are, in descending order: the economy, health care and national security.
The data showed that 63 percent of respondents approved, and 37 percent disapproved, of the way Obama has handled the economy.
Another survey of 1,000 registered Jewish voters conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in April found that 51 percent of respondents cited the economy as their chief concern.
Further down the priority list, 10 percent of respondents listed health care and 7 percent cited the federal deficit as their top issues. Just 4 percent said Israel and 2 percent went with Iran.
Locally, a number of people cited social issues — namely abortion, access to contraceptives and gay marriage — as their primary concerns.
“As a female, it’s my body. I should have a choice,” Samantha Edelman, a 32-year-old financial analyst from Upper Dublin, said during a young professionals event held at the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City.
Sipping a beer at a pre-election program in University City organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, along with several young professional groups, 25-year-old Henry Goodelman said his decision to vote for Obama was a no-brainer.
“I work in the field of education, so I really don’t have an option,” said Goodelman, who works in higher education administration. “What party wants to cut and cut and cut and what party wants to invest?”
Again and again, voters turned the subject of the discussion back to the economy.
Up at the Klein JCC in the Northeast, Bobi Lopez-Albright, a Cuban-born woman who teaches a class at the Klein on positive thinking, said she’s worried about the effect the job market is having on her grandchildren, who are in their 30s.
“We need to get people back to work because that will help the economy,” said the 80-year-old Republican supporter of Romney. “I like less government. I know about Cuba. I don’t need socialism or communism.”
About to sit down for a lunch with dozens of other seniors at the JCC, Lopez-Albright went on to say that she likes “America the way it is. I want us to go by the Constitution, to have less government and more helping each other. We are the government. That’s why it says, ‘We the people.’ They work for us.”
While some voters like Lopez-Albright acknowledge being guided by a political ideology, others like Caroll Weinberg, a veteran psychiatrist who declined to give his age and lives in Bala Cynwyd, said they are less ideologically motivated and are swayed by a particular candidate.
Prior to the election program at the National Museum of American Jewish History, Weinberg said he’s backing Obama because of his passage of the health care law and for his handling of the economy, specifically for acting to prevent another Great Depression.
He’s not terribly happy “with the way that Obama has handled things in the Middle East, but I’m not a one-issue voter.”
It’s no secret that questions about the U.S.-Israel relationship, the Iranian nuclear threat and whether one party or candidate is better suited to handle those issues remain contentious and divisive among Jews right up until the election — and beyond.
Reuven Slurzberg, a 62-year-old math teacher in the Philadelphia school district who is a leader in the Orthodox community in Rhawnhurst and attended the Chabad Sukkot event in the neighborhood, said he’s backing Romney “because of his stand on Israel and because of his faith. I don’t hold it against him that he’s a Mormon. I think it’s great that you have faith and you hold by it.
“I think most — certainly not all, but most — Orthodox people will be supporting Romney,” he said, adding that Obama has “snubbed Netanyahu enough times. It’s not like he did it by accident. He did it on purpose.
“I judge people by what they do, not what they say,” he said, asserting that Obama’s actions on Iran haven’t matched his rhetoric.
But David Kushner, a 32-year-old Orthodox restaurant owner, also from the Northeast, asserted that a sizable minority of local Torah-observant voters are sticking with the president.
“I look at facts, I don’t listen to rhetoric. The fact is President Obama has increased funding to Israel more than any other president,” said Kushner, who added that Obama has overseen joint military cooperation and vetoed the Palestinian unilateral declaration of statehood at the United Nations Security Council.
Mordechai Schupacheveci, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor from the Northeast who fought in four of Israel’s wars, said he has no problem thinking of himself as a single-issue voter.
“I’m Israeli,” he said. “I vote for the guy who is good for Israel. Is Obama good for Israel?” He doesn’t think so.
Kushner, who in the past has been involved in Philadelphia politics but has stepped back, offered this advice: Voters shouldn’t base their decision on a single issue, but should look at the whole candidate.
“We have no idea what the next four years are going to look like,” said the father of two. “We have no idea what challenges the next president will face.”