When the New Yorker magazine depicted Sen. Barack Hussein Obama and his wife, Michelle, on its July cover as radical Muslims, its editors said they were poking fun at people who buy into those rumors.
Liz Braunstein and Rachel Zaentz, however, see those rumors as stumbling blocks to the Obama campaign within the Jewish community. Braunstein, who grew up in Oradell, and Zaentz, of Fair Lawn, are members of Jews For Obama, a national grassroots organization of volunteers that is trying to educate Jews about the Illinois senator, what he stands for, and what his views mean for American Jews.
Liz Braunstein, formerly of Oradell, has been stumping for Barack Obama in Bergen County with Jews For Obama.
"It’s a matter of really blasting people with the correct information and making sure they hear it from people they can trust," Zaentz said. "That it doesn’t just come from the campaign’s Website. A lot has to do with talking with [people]."
The group grew out of an e-mail list on the Obama campaign’s Website earlier this year. Yocheved Seidman of Ithaca, N.Y., Jonathan Kamens of Boston, and Jordan Pollack of Waltham, Mass. led the call to become spokespersons to the Jewish community after witnessing the flurry of rumors targeting Jewish voters.
"I was upset about the things being said about Sen. Obama before I knew anything about him," said Seidman, a Lubavitcher. "I felt it was wrong from a Jewish perspective. It wasn’t derech eretz [proper behavior] to be slandering this man."
Jews For Obama is not part of the official Obama campaign but it is in touch with the campaign’s leadership. Its e-mail list reaches more than 400 volunteers across the country. For now, the group is planning house meetings to discuss issues of concern to the Jewish community, such as Israel.
In particular, Obama’s critics say the senator’s voting record is short and inconclusive. That’s the major hurdle Jews For Obama faces and where the majority of the group’s efforts are aimed.
"A lot of people are just nervous that we need to reach out more to the Jewish community," Braunstein said. "Relatively, he’s become more well known. Going to Israel was really important; people respected him for that."
Braunstein, ‘3, spent six weeks this summer as an organizing fellow for the Obama campaign. These days she’s involved with Jews For Obama as the organization’s point person for Bergen County’s Jewish community.
"My role when talking to people who are concerned is more education than anything else," she said. "They’re just curious and want to know more."
Braunstein will cut back on her campaigning when she begins law school at New York University in a few weeks. Zaentz, a ‘3-year-old volunteer who works for a New York City nonprofit organization, has already begun the Bergen County coverage. Though Reform and Conservative Jews are said to lean more toward the Democratic Party while Orthodoxy leans toward the Republicans, Israel is the one issue that crosses all divisions, Zaentz said. Seidman called Obama and McCain’s positions on Israel "the same . more or less."
The negative e-mail campaign that accuses Obama of being a Muslim also maligns his stance on Israel, painting him as pro-Palestinian.
"There’s a perceived notion about where he stands on Israel and it’s just not correct," Zaentz said. "It’s easy to get lost in everything. It’s a complicated issue." Obama, she continued, has been unwavering in his support for the Jewish state but due to what Zaentz called "a lack of access" to information, many people don’t have the facts about the senator’s record.
U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9), the Obama campaign’s Northeast coordinator and an early Obama supporter, praised Jews For Obama for working to "disseminate the truth about his various policy decisions, including his long-standing commitment to the Jewish State of Israel."
"Jewish Americans are like most Americans in that they don’t have, for the most part, a great deal of experience with Barack Obama, having only heard of him in the last year or two," Rothman said. "On the other hand, they’ve known [presumptive Republican nominee] Sen. [John] McCain for more than 10 years . So like most Americans, Jews want to be careful that in an election of such consequence they make sure that they are picking the right person to bring about the fundamental change and new thinking here at home and abroad that we need in an American president."