Occupy Orthodox Judaism: Interview with Rochelle Garfield

Occupy Orthodox Judaism: Interview with Rochelle Garfield
  • Hi Rebbetzin.

    The new Pew survey on Jews in America found that 70% are Democratic or lean Democratic, while only 19% identify as politically conservative. Among the Orthodox however, the results are very different. 57% of Orthodox Jews are Republican or lean Republican, 54% identify as conservative, and a mere 36% are Democratic or lean Democratic.

    I know when I was more immersed in the Orthodox world, it was made clear in various circles that they felt it important that Orthodox Jews needed to vote GOP. Aside from "liberal values" constantly being blasted in the yeshivas, I recall when Yated -- "the Torah newspaper for our times" - decided to reverse its previous practice of not endorsing any candidates and went for McCain.

    But as black and white as the Orthodox world may seem to some outside, it is anything but. I recall when your husband worked at the haredi-run shul here, your family was openly politically liberal, which I think is fascinating, so I wanted to ask you about that experience.

    Let's start at the beginning, childhood. I recall a conversation with a rabbi I'm friendly with had where he told me when he was a kid in Monsey, the teacher asked the class whose parents were voting for Reagan and who for Mondale. Only one kid raised his hand for Mondale and the rabbi remembered thinking to himself: What Jews vote for Democrats? Weird.

    Was your experience similar? Were all the kids from GOP families? If you feel comfortable sharing your parents' affiliation, were they liberal?
  • That's really interesting! I actually had a very different experience. Back when I was a kid, I had the impression Orthodox Jews were still Democrats. I have a distinct memory of that election. I was in elementary school, in second grade, and the school held a mock election. I actually "voted" for Reagan. I was one of only a handful of kids that voted for Reagan. I know memories are not always accurate, but according to my memory, Mondale won by a landslide in the Bais Yaakov School I attended. I didn't know that much about politics, but I was enamored by Reagan. I loved listening to him speak. (Or maybe I liked him because I just always liked doing the opposite of what everyone else was doing! Lol!) Anyway, I grew up thinking most Jews of all affiliations were Democrats. It was only as I got older that I felt like the demographics of Orthodox Jews began to shift.

    I don’t feel comfortable sharing my parents’ political views, other than to say that they always taught me to think for myself and ingrained in me the power of critical thinking.
  • So your childhood experience is basically the exact opposite of that of the rabbi I mentioned! So perhaps views were more heterogeneous back then, but Haredi Orthodoxy has since been developing in a more right-wing direction.

    So at the time you were a Reagan "voter." I'm sure some of our readers now are thinking, oy vavoy, nebuch, to leave the emes of the Golden Age of Reagan's conservatism, what could have gone wrong?

    When did you, the erstwhile Reagan supporter, become mugged by a different reality than the one movement conservatives were given? In other words, when did you develop a more liberal politics?
  • It was a long process that slowly evolved. From the time I was a kid, I always had a soft spot for minorities. I felt a lot of empathy for the plight of the African-American people in American history- from the beginning through the present time. I always had strong feminist tendencies and felt that women should be given more opportunities. I always felt passionately that our country should feel a responsibility to take care of the minorities, the poor, those with disabilities. But I really began to publicly consider myself a strong democrat some time after I got married. My in-laws are both passionate liberal democrats. I would often get into heated debates with my father-in-law about many topics. He is a wise man with lots of knowledge and wisdom; and a very kind man with lots of empathy. It didn't take much for him to help me realize that the democratic party was more closely aligned with my values. Even more importantly, as an Orthodox Jew, I began to feel that the Democratic party's ideals were much more closely aligned with the Torah's values that I strive to live by. The whole Torah is focused on looking out for those who cannot defend themselves- the widow, the orphan, the poor. Any time you make any money, you are required to give some to those who cannot feed themselves. There is never any judgement about the "laziness" of those who cannot provide for themselves. It is our responsibility to help those who need help. Not decide whether or not someone is deserving of our help. According to the Torah, the core principle upon which a Jewish society is to be founded is one based on loving kindness toward all members of society who are in need of help.

    In this light, I want to live in a country where the government feels a responsibility to help those who cannot help themselves. The Democratic Party's support of a broad range of social services helps support this vision. On the other hand, the Republican Party's view of limited government influence seems like a cop-out to me. I want to live in a country where people feel united and concerned for one another. My visions for this country lie much more closely with the visions of the Democratic Party. The Republican Party's often tough stand on immigration bothers me, too. I read a quote from Rav Hirsch in a commentary on the story of Exodus, that has stuck with me since then. He said something to the effect of: you judge a country not by the way it treats its citizens, but by the way it treats its immigrants. I feel that America's role toward its citizens and toward the world in general should be one based on kindness and empathy. This is what makes America unique and this is a core Torah value. Throughout all the stories in Tanach, God has always looked favorably at individuals and countries that treat each other kindly.
  • That's very interesting. In my head even now, the conservatives' responses are ringing. Conservatives would make the argument that actually they too want a country where people feel united, but they just don't want "Big Government" mandating our unity. They might point to the Torah's titheing requirements, as Ben Carson did, and say 10%, see, even the rich man is required to give no more (one of the things I've long been curious about, but never really looked into, was what sort of taxation was levied by the kehillot in the historical shtetls of Eastern Europe). How do you think their idea of "limited government" is a cop-out?