The Jewish Advocate: Jewish vote seen as vital to ‘diversity’ of Boston politics

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

BOSTON – There was a time when the words “Jewish vote” in Boston conjured up a picture of residents of the city’s Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan neighborhoods, predominantly immigrants and their young, often large families, actively participating in their tightly knit Jewish community and, beyond its borders, in the wider secular world.

In multi-ethnic Boston of the mid-20th century, involvement by Jews in politics often took the form of successful runs for office and recognition by candidates of all religions of the importance of the Jewish vote.

The storied G&G Delicatessen on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester became a must-visit stop for political candidates on election eve. It stands at the intersection of the avenue with Ansell Road, named for well-known politico Julius Ansell.

But as the Jews of those Boston neighborhoods began their flight to the suburbs in the 1940s and 1950s, the landscape that was Jewish Boston changed. A half-century later, with the city approaching an electoral season this fall, candidates, rarely Jewish now, approach “the Jewish vote” far differently. 

“One time there was a major [Jewish voting] bloc in the city with Ward 14 [in and around Dorchester],” said Mayor Thomas M. Menino, at 62 old enough to know the impact of that constituency from his home neighborhood of Hyde Park, which is next to Mattapan.

“That’s changed over the years,” Menino, who is running for a fourth term as the city’s chief executive, acknowledged in an interview with the Advocate last week. “What it is now is a dispersed voting bloc in the city.”

From the heights of Commonwealth Avenue in the Brighton section of Boston, where many Russian Jews make their home, to downtown Boston, where “empty-nester” Jews have bought up townhouses and condominiums in the tony neighborhoods of Back Bay, Beacon Hill and the waterfront, the Jewish vote is indeed scattered around the city. Few Jews live in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan now.

Howard Leibowitz, formerly the mayor’s liaison to the Jewish community, said the change is more than just geographic. “These days in Boston,” he said, “there are several different sectors of the Jewish community: the senior community, who live in some of the elderly developments … the Russian community … younger families.”

The change is also apparent in the downtown business community. Where once Jewish professionals were excluded from top positions in their fields, today Jewish real estate developers, money managers, physicians, lawyers and other professionals are holding positions of prominence in their respective businesses and professions. City politicians, and also those running for statewide and national office, often court Jewish professionals for donations to their political campaigns. Indeed, a review of Menino’s campaign-donation filings with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance as of July 26 reveals a number of Jews among donors to his re-election campaign.

Although each segment of the Jewish community has its own needs from the city, together they stand united on certain politically charged issues, said Nancy K. Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. “Affordable health care is a huge uniter,” she said. “We do everything through the grassroots, so we look for the issues that bring our community together.”

While Kaufman said that most of the issues JCRC organizes around are decided on the state or national levels, she pointed to affordable housing, jobs and anti-violence as urban issues with which Jews have long concerned themselves.

Menino believes that political involvement by any ethnic group, Jewish or otherwise, comes down to one key issue: “Fairness in our society. Hatred has to be wiped out. My vision for Boston is to respect the diversity of our city. It’s an open city, open to all.”

Leibowitz recalled an event early in Menino’s administration (he was first elected in 1993) that publicly proved his point about openness: when anti-Semitic slogans appeared in Copley Square in the Back Bay, Menino ordered that the graffiti be painted over, and he denounced the acts at “The Unity Rally” called by the JCRC and the Anti-Defamation League.

While Menino no longer employs a liaison to the Jewish community, several high-level policy advisers with Jewish backgrounds work in his office. Among them is Seth Gitell, the mayor’s press secretary, a former editor for the national Jewish newspaper The Forward.

Also a major Jewish presence at City Hall is Boston City Councilor Michael Ross, whose district includes Back Bay, Beacon Hill and the West End. Ross is the first Jewish city councilor in more than 45 years. He is the son of Holocaust survivor Stephan Ross, who was instrumental in the development of the New England Holocaust Memorial in downtown Boston, directly behind City Hall.

Gitell, in remarks to the Advocate, acknowledged that the support of members of the Jewish community is very important to the mayor. He noted that year after year Menino attends Jewish community events, such as the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at the Holocaust memorial, and two different Chanukah menorah-lighting celebrations in the city.

“Mayor Menino believes that the diversity of our city is the strength of our city,” Gitell said. “As part of that diversity, he celebrates the different groups in Boston, including our Jewish community.”

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