On October 15, as Dr. Anne Lapidus Lerner worked at her desk at home in Teaneck, her phone rang.
Lerner – an emerita faculty member at the Jewish Theological Seminary – did not recognize the caller I.D.; when she answered she heard the automated male voice. It was a robocall, one of tens of thousands that went out from the Steve Lonegan campaign in the days and hours prior to the U.S. Senate election held the next day.
It wasn’t necessarily the messenger nor the automated call that bothered Lerner as much as the message.
The voice in Lerner’s ear told her that Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky was urging Jews to vote for the Republican candidate.
|Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky|
As we all learned shortly thereafter, the calls did not succeed. Newark’s mayor, Corey Booker, the Democrat, will represent New Jersey in the U.S. Senate.
Booker won some 57 percent of the vote in Bergen County; Lonegan’s robocalls managed to produce 42 percent. In Teaneck alone, Booker took almost 83 percent of the vote. The only discernable place where Jews supported Lonegan was in heavily Orthodox Lakewood, where the candidate garnered 99.5 percent of the vote, according to reports.
Lerner, though, was looking at the bigger picture. She was thinking about the Pew study, showing a growing chasm between denominations. This robocall from Kamenetsky for Lonegan wasn’t meant for her, or for that matter anyone who is not charedi or ultra-Orthodox. Kamenetsky is the rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Gedolah of Philadelphia, and he was joined by Lakewood’s rosh yeshivah, Rabbi Yisroel Newman, in the endorsement of Lonegan.
“It was so clearly focused on a particular candidate,” Lerner said. “The language used on the robocall was the language of traditional Judaism. For someone to say that it was a “chiyuv” – a Torah-based obligation – to vote for Lonegan was troubling. What connection is there between a religious obligation and a political campaign?
Because I take chiyuv seriously, I would like to know how this obligation is rooted in halachah” – Jewish law. “If one takes halachah seriously, one ought to include the details.
“I think the robocalls made so many assumptions about who I was and about what my way of life was all about. It made assumptions about my priorities, and these were erroneous assumptions. I felt it was real chutzpah.”
Dr. Lerner went on to say that the word chiyuv is a serious one and should never be used in this fashion.
The robocall said it had an “urgent message to every Jew registered to vote in the state of New Jersey. We prevail on you to vote for Republican Lonegan. He is a proponent of supporting our morals and values.”
The message went on to say that Lonegan was a “forthright proponent of life, morality and marriage.”
At the end of the message the listener can hear Kamenetsky’s voice, saying he supported the vote for Lonegan. The call added that the entire country will be watching the October 16 election.
“Torah observant Jews will vote to defend our values,” it said. “Go out and vote for Mayor Lonegan.”
Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Northern New Jersey, said that she was familiar with the robocall tactic in elections.
Kurland added that “you want people to be informed about whom they are voting for.
“We prefer forums where people can come away with the information they need. But these robocalls can lead to a situation where people compromise their morals if people wanted to take it that far. Again, you want people to be informed of their choices. Candidate forums provide so much more to the voters. I think these robocalls are totally beyond the pale.”
Kurland lives in Morris County. She said she hasn’t heard about similar calls being made to Jews who live there.
Lerner felt that the call fell almost in lockstep in line with voters who oppose President Obama’s policies.
“But this one was different,” she said.