NEW YORK – Back in 2000, when she was running to represent New York in the Senate, Hillary Clinton benefited from the almost unanimous vote of one small Jewish hassidic village in Rockland County called New Square.
This week, running for president, Clinton is once again expected to be the favorite of New Square – a town comprised mostly of Skver Hassidim – whose loyalty runs counter to the prevailing trend of the American Jewish community. While overall support among American Jews traditionally leans Democratic in presidential elections, polls have shown that when it comes to Orthodox voters, the tendency is reversed.
According to the famous 2013 Pew Research Center study on American Jewry, 57% of Orthodox Jewish voters are Republican or lean Republican, and only 36% are Democrats or lean Democratic.
More recently, an American Jewish Committee survey published in September showed 50% of Orthodox respondents prefer Donald Trump, and only 21% side with Clinton.
CEO of the public affairs consulting firm The Friedlander Group, Ezra Friedlander, an Orthodox Jew himself who has accompanied many presidential candidates in visits to the community this year, is familiar with the community in New Square.
A day before the election, Friedlander told The Jerusalem Post that he believes the local Skver hassidic community, like the Satmar Hassidim who have already endorsed her, will cast its vote for Clinton because of their long-time ties.
“The hassidic community has a relationship with Hillary Clinton,” he said.
“She was the senator from New York for eight years, so she knows the community. Donald Trump, by comparison, although he is from New York, never interacted with the Jewish community, let alone the hassidic community. He never really took the time to understand that community. He could be proud of the fact that his daughter is Jewish, but to present that as making the case is insulting in a way.”
But Clinton’s’ relationship with the hassidic community in New Square, some 50 kilometers north of Manhattan, has been in the public eye before she was even contemplating a presidential run.
In 1999, four residents of New Square – Kalmen Stern, David Goldstein, Benjamin Berger and Jacob Elbaum – were convicted of bilking the US government of tens of millions of dollars. They were all sentenced to between two and six years in prison.
Two years later in January 2001, then president Bill Clinton decided to shorten the prison terms of the group – nicknamed the New Square Four – as he was about to leave office.
The decision raised many questions whether the clemency was granted in exchange for votes in favor of Hillary Clinton, who had just won her Senate seat two months earlier.
This was especially suspicious since Clinton and her husband had met with leaders of the New Square community during her campaign, and on Election Day, the hassidic village voted almost unanimously for Hillary Clinton.
An investigation was opened into that clemency and over a hundred other pardons granted by President Clinton during his term, but no charges were filed. Overseeing the case was then US attorney for the Southern District of New York James Comey, who now serves as FBI director and has investigated Hillary Clinton’s email scandal in recent weeks.
“It’s a community comprised of God-fearing Jews who yearn to worship and raise their families in the tradition of their forebears,” Ezra Friedlander told the Post. “Like all communities, you have individuals and leaders who are involved and you have people who are less involved and go about their daily lives without giving it a thought.
Then again, I believe they are aware of the election, and I hope they’ll go and vote. When you’re part of a community, and if you’re on the lower socioeconomic level, then you are worried about making ends meet. You want to have a social safety net, or you are worried about antisemitism, the safety of the world, the commitment to Israel-US relationship. These are all issues that concern all members of the hassidic community, and it’s a concern to the New Square community as well.”
Beyond New Square, Friedlander said, the hassidic vote is much more complex than some of the candidates he has met during the campaign realize.
“One size doesn’t fit all,” Friedlander said. “You cannot come into the hassidic or Orthodox community, say ‘I love Israel’ and sing ‘Hava Nagila’ with a nice black yarmulka and think you are gonna pick up the entire vote. People want more nuanced positions, people are afraid, people are worried, people cannot make ends meet.”
New Square Mayor Izzy Spitzer, who refused requests to be interviewed by the Post, reportedly sat in on the 2000 meetings with Bill and Hillary Clinton, along with the Skver Grand Rabbi David Twersky, during which it was alleged that clemency for the New Square Four was discussed.
New Square in New York is an ultrastrict community of hassidic rule: the town has gender segregated sidewalks, women from the community are not allowed to drive, people can only use “kosher cellphones” with web filtering, and women are banned from using smartphones altogether.
Author Shulem Deen, who was expelled from the Skver community at age 30 some 10 years ago, explained that when voting, New Square residents’ main concerns are very practical: making a living and sustain their families.
“One of the things that characterizes this community is that they emphasize large families and the importance of Torah study,” Deen said.
This, he said, means that women are busy taking care of children and the household, and the men tend to have very meager secular education, which allows them to have only lowskill jobs. The result is that one of the main sources of support and revenue for New Square families is government assistance.
“So one of the cornerstones of their economic system is being on really cozy terms with elected officials, in order to get whatever you can get from the government,” Deen said. “This leads them to emphasize the importance of votes, and they don’t really consider the personal politics or the identity issues in the politician.
“One of the things you’ll never hear someone in New Square talk about is an elected official being gay, or an elected official being pro-abortion or something like that,” he added. “They don’t care about the issues that other Americans care about. They have very narrow interests, and so they vote based on those interests.
“I don’t say that as a judgment,” Deen said. “This is simply how they work their system. If there is a woman in government, that doesn’t bother them in the least, because that woman is not a woman from their community, and they don’t require the world to live as they live. The important thing for them is that it’s a candidate who supports their interests.”
Deen said he remembers the time Clinton came to New Square during her senate run in 2000, and how she held a women-only rally in town before meeting with the rebbe of New Square.
“There was a lot of talk then of whether there was a quid pro quo,” he said.
“It was pretty clear to me at the time that the New Square community tried to win her favor, and she wanted to win their support. They got what they wanted, and she got what she wanted. Whether that was explicit or not, it’s pretty clear that it was an arrangement that worked for both of them.”
In general, Deen told the Post, the hassidic community tends to align with the candidate that is most likely to win.
“They don’t want to be betting on a losing horse because they need that horse’s support after,” he said. “Typically, if there was a clear front-runner, they went for the front-runner.”