© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Jewish People In New York City On Faith And Politics


We've been hearing from people of faith about how it informs their politics and how they've fared under President Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Yiddish).


In New York City, tens of thousands of people marched in the streets, showing solidarity against rising anti-Semitism in the United States. And then this morning, three members of New York's Jewish community sat down with us to talk more.

MARTHA ACHELSBERG: Martha Achelsberg - I grew up in northern New Jersey, and now I'm a retired professor and living in lower Washington Heights.

DAVID SIFFERT: I'm David Siffert. I grew up in Morningside Heights, but I live in the Village now, and I'm the president of the Village Independent Democrats.

CHANCY BLUMENFRUCHT: I'm Chancy Blumenfrucht. I'm from Brooklyn, N.Y. I work for the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities. And if I may say, I'm a Trump supporter.

CORNISH: First off, that march - not all of our guests were on the same page about it. Chancy Blumenfrucht says she didn't attend. She observes Orthodox Judaism. She says many in her community weren't aware it was happening.

BLUMENFRUCHT: To me, it's very, like, unusual because the Orthodox community is really the one that's being targeted.

CORNISH: Martha Achelsberg was at the march. She was sad there wasn't more Orthodox representation.

ACHELSBERG: Because the whole point of this supposedly was for the non-Orthodox communities, of which I consider myself a part, to show solidarity with the Orthodox communities who have been targeted. And then to be told it wasn't inclusive is very confusing.

CORNISH: Now, authorities in New York have bolstered policing in Orthodox neighborhoods following last month's news of a man who allegedly stabbed five Jewish people at a Hanukkah celebration. I asked our guests if they were alarmed about the recent high-profile incidents of attacks on Jewish people around the country. Here again is Chancy Blumenfrucht.

BLUMENFRUCHT: It definitely has affected me tremendously within the last few weeks because of the tremendous explosion of brazen anti-Semitic actions - not just knocking off somebody's hat, but killing, stabbing, murdering people where they work, where they're trying to make a living, where they pray. It's jarring because my sons look like those people who are being beaten up.

CORNISH: What do you mean?

BLUMENFRUCHT: They dress with white shirts, black pants, black hats.

CORNISH: David Siffert and Martha Achelsberg, for you, was there a moment when you felt like this issue is growing or something that you felt like, within your synagogues or where you practice, it's being talked about?

ACHELSBERG: I would - this is Martha. I would say first with the Charlottesville march and people screaming, carrying tiki torches and saying, Jews will not replace us, and second, the shooting in Pittsburgh at Tree of Life. And I felt like the response from the national level was not appropriate.

CORNISH: Are you talking about President Trump there?


CORNISH: So this is the moment where, afterwards, he commented that there were, quote, "very fine people on both sides."

BLUMENFRUCHT: Chancy here. I listened to it, I studied it, and it was taken completely out of context. And people have to be given the benefit of the doubt on both sides.

CORNISH: On both sides - this language does not sit well with David Siffert.

SIFFERT: I do get worried about soundbite culture, and that applies to politicians across the board, including Donald Trump, who can be a victim of soundbite culture. What I do hold against Donald Trump is that I think he's really created a climate where hatred can come out much more freely, and we see it not just with Jews. Jews are just one group and, in some ways, a group that's gotten off more lightly than a lot of others have.

CORNISH: President Trump has spoken with a lot of pride about his support of policies that the Israeli government supports, which the president believes also shows his support for the American Jewish community - for example, moving the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem or recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. I asked Chancy Blumenfrucht whether she felt like those policies affect her.

BLUMENFRUCHT: I think he does it for his evangelical base, which is very strong. How many Jews are there actually in the United States that are voting, and how many Jews that like Trump? There are so few Jews, which I also never - you know, there's, like, such a - why would he go after the Jewish vote? It's nothing.

CORNISH: Then can I ask the other two, then? I mean, do you see this administration at times as conflating American Jews with Israelis?

ACHELSBERG: Totally, and I find that very disturbing. It's - it - he's doing that in what he thinks is a positive way. But I think it's contributing to the idea that Jews - an old trope that they have dual loyalties or that they more care about another country than our own. For many of us, it's extremely disturbing.

CORNISH: Can I ask either of the other two, then? I mean, have there been any moments where you have looked through your vote through the lens of your faith?

SIFFERT: It depends. This is Dave.

ACHELSBERG: Excuse me. I mean, I just say that's a conflation...


ACHELSBERG: ...That precisely - we were trying to avoid.

BLUMENFRUCHT: We're just saying faith does not...

ACHELSBERG: Looking through the lens of our faith is not the same as looking through the lens of Israel.

BLUMENFRUCHT: I mean, it's very - it's anti-Semitic because we are - my parents were Holocaust survivors, very civic-minded. They took us by the hand. And on Election Day, they made us go and vote. We realized what a great country this is, so...

CORNISH: Can I ask, then - does this lens feel different? Even me asking this question, does it feel like the last couple of years have felt different?

SIFFERT: Yes. I really do feel both Donald Trump and Bibi Netanyahu have a very vested interest in conflating Jews and Israelis.


SIFFERT: And I think they've used it to the detriment of both American Jews and Israelis.

BLUMENFRUCHT: I think we have to call out the left a little bit here, too. There's a lot of anti-Semitism promoted and a lot of really negative things being said on the left.

CORNISH: There were specific incidents that people were concerned about - right? - Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, comments that people read in her tweets that they felt showed anti-Jewish bias. I mean, were those moments of frustration for you?

SIFFERT: I'm a firm believer that everywhere there are non-Jews, there is anti-Semitism across the political spectrum. And I think that a lot of where that is on the left has been channeled into an anti-Israel sentiment that makes me uncomfortable. But the extent of it and the way it manifests, to me, is a lot less scary than what's happening on the right.

CORNISH: We have to end the conversation there, but not before I ask how their faith helps them get through debates like this one. Martha Achelsberg says...

ACHELSBERG: We can pray together. We can, perhaps most importantly, sing together and feel like somehow we - and I don't mean just Jews; I mean we in the United States - will get through this.

CORNISH: Chancy Blumenfrucht.

BLUMENFRUCHT: My faith has taught me to be not judgmental and open-minded and keep the dialogue going.

CORNISH: And then David Siffert.

SIFFERT: I think Jews have a long tradition of intellectually grappling with very difficult issues. But I will have to go and end this on a nonconciliatory note and say this administration is cruelly inflicting harms on vulnerable people, and to expect those vulnerable people to engage in a respectful, calm dialogue is not realistic.

CORNISH: After we wrap, they swap phone numbers because the conversation isn't over.

(SOUNDBITE OF TORRES SONG, "THREE FUTURES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.