The number of Jews living in the city has declined dramatically in recent years, but mayoral candidates in the upcoming Democratic primary are still paying attention to the community.
Former City Councilman Jim Kenney arrived late to a mayoral candidates forum on April 27 at The Philadelphian, a Center City condominium building with a large Jewish population, and quickly tried to emphasize his connection to the community.
Growing up in South Philadelphia, he said, “my neighborhood was about one-third Jewish and two-thirds Irish, and what an interesting mix of personalities they were there. We lived together; we lived side by side.”
Lynne Abraham may be the only Jewish candidate running in the Democratic mayoral primary on May 19, but she is certainly not the only one who has been reaching out to the Jews in this hotly contested six-candidate race.
The number of Jews living in the city has declined dramatically in the past few decades. According to population surveys conducted for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the number of Jews living in the city declined from 86,000 in 1997 to 69,000 in 2009 — a 20 percent drop over that 12-year period.
In most elections — particularly a Democratic primary — outreach to the Jews is important because of the community’s disproportionately high voter turnout, the majority of which tend to vote Democratic. Even so, voter turnout is expected to be especially low this time around, thanks to the limited number of other races on the ballot. Accordingly, it is unclear how many Jews will vote and how much their vote will matter in determining the results of the mayoral race.
Still, between seeking Jewish financial and political support, the candidates have been paying close attention to the community.
“I would say that the leading candidates certainly all have Jewish donors and people with whom they are very close,” said Robin Schatz, director of government affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
And even with the projected low voter turnout, Dan Siegel, a political consultant who is Jewish, said that numbers could still be relatively higher in the Jewish community.
“When you have a mayoral race that is being messaged around education, pretty much above anything else, I think that creates a certain higher level of buy-in from the Jewish community that takes the issue so seriously,” said Siegel, who is managing City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s campaign for re-election.
In an informal survey of Jews interviewed over the phone, at The Philadelphian and at other Jewish gatherings in recent weeks, Jews from cross-sections of the city expressed support primarily for the two candidates leading in the polls, Kenney and state Sen. Anthony Williams, as well as for Abraham, who is running third.
Kenney “is firmly for public education,” said Shirley Brown, a 78-year-old resident of The Philadelphian, who was among some 120 people who came out to see the candidate. She said she liked what Kenney had to say about providing funding to schools. “I know that he has a very strong record on public education, which, as a retired schoolteacher, is very important to me.”
During his time on City Council, Kenney sponsored legislation that is important to the Jewish community, according to Schatz, including a bill that prohibited the city from accepting a bid or holding investments in foreign-owned firms that do business with Iran.
Abraham, a former district attorney who “identifies strongly as Jewish,” according to Schatz, but who does not belong to a congregation, has spoken frequently at Jewish gatherings and has served on the boards of the local American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League. She was honored in 2013 by American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Philadelphia Chapter as one of the city’s top “Women of Distinction.”
Berny Brownstein, founder of the advertising agency that carries his name, said Abraham could lead the city in the same way as former mayor Ed Rendell and his chief of staff David Cohen, who are both Jewish. He said he was supporting Abraham “because of her intellect, not because she’s Jewish.”
“I think she could sit at the same table with major players around the country and represent the city well,” said Brownstein, 79, a board member of the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League. In contrast, he said, “I think Kenney is the tough street politician that we’ve already had over the years.”
Jerry Silverman, 64, a docent for the Mural Arts Program, also favors Abraham. She is a “hero to the city, and it would be wonderful to have a female mayor,” he said after giving a presentation at an event of the Jewish nonprofit, Repair the World.
Of all the candidates, Williams has had perhaps the most public connection to the Jewish community in recent years. He has traveled to Israel with local Jewish groups — including one trip in 2013 for which he recruited other African-American leaders to participate. He pushed in Harrisburg for Holocaust education legislation and educational tax credits that benefit Jewish day schools, and he has spoken at a number of Jewish gatherings, including a Holocaust memorial ceremony and a local Zionist Organization of America event, where he was honored.
Williams “is very supportive of Israel and became even more so as a result of our trip,” said Jeff Batoff, a local attorney who was on the 2013 trip to Israel. He said he was impressed how the group’s meeting with the deputy mayor of Jerusalem affected Williams.
Williams “found it very intriguing to see how someone deals with the security situation in a city like Jerusalem, because obviously one of the important issues for Tony is public safety,” said Batoff.
He and Marty Weinberg, a partner in the same law firm and who has run for mayor, both mentioned Williams’ approach to education as a primary reason for supporting him, but they also said it was the connection forged on the trip to Israel.
“He was very moved” by the trip to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust history museum in Jerusalem, and “it only underscored his determination to see that Holocaust education in the schools takes place.”
After years of legislative wrangling, then-Gov. Tom Corbett last year approved Holocaust education legislation, which strongly encourages — and eventually could require — Pennsylvania public schools to teach about the Holocaust.
Among the other candidates who are trailing the three front-runners, Nelson Diaz has served as co-chair of the American Jewish Committee’s Latino-Jewish Coalition and said in a video about the program: “The core of the relationship between the Latinos and the Jews” is for the former group to try to emulate the latter’s success.
Alon Abramson, 31, an Israeli-born American who is active in the West Philadelphia community, said a big issue for him is concern over the push to turn the city into a natural gas energy hub.
The potential negative environmental impact “is a huge issue and one that has not seen a lot of daylight in this election, because schools and pensions are just such more important issues for people even though the mayor doesn’t have a lot that he’s going to be able to do about these things,” said Abramson, a project manager of energy initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania
He said he is considering voting for Kenney, even though neither Kenney nor most of the other candidates has expressed opposition to the natural gas investment.
Selma Harris Forstater, 81, who volunteers for the National Museum of American Jewish History, said of Abraham: “She’s so experienced, and I like things she has done before and will continue to do.”
Harris Forstater, speaking on a recent Friday at KleinLife: Center City, said she approved of Abraham’s vow to go to Harrisburg and see why the state can’t provide more funding for schools. “She would even take them to court if necessary,” she said.
Harris Forstater and other Jews interviewed aside, much of Philadelphia isn’t paying attention to the primaries. A number of local journalists have used “boring” or synonyms to describe the races. Abramson, founder of the group West Philly Runners, said it was unfortunate he hasn’t heard many people talking about the race.
“I’m not sensing that we’re going to have huge voter turnout,” he said, “For my part, I’m going to be pushing people to come out and vote. I have the ear of some people, but there’s only so much I can do.”