- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

JERUSALEM — Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jewish Americans who have lived in Israel for decades without casting a U.S. ballot say they are planning to vote in November’s presidential election.

Their newfound enthusiasm is the fruit of a first voting drive among the strictly devout, or Haredi, community in Israel, and local Republicans are delighted.

After the 2000 presidential election was decided by a few hundred Floridians, Republicans and Democrats are working harder than ever for the votes of about 7 million Americans living abroad. Israel’s 250,000 Americans — many of them holding dual Israeli citizenship — make up the third-largest collection of such expatriates outside of North America, and a large proportion of them are ultra-Orthodox.

During Israeli general elections, they dutifully follow the edicts of influential rabbis to show up at the ballot box. But few have broken the community’s daily routine of prayerful devotion and study to participate in American elections.

The person who set out to change that is Mordechai Adler, a garrulous hardware importer who says he’s never set foot inside a voting booth in the United States.

Having moved to Israel at 18, he never bothered to register for fear of waiting in long lines at the consular section of U.S. diplomatic missions in Israel.

But four months ago, while registering his children as citizens at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Mr. Adler stumbled on the instructions to register for an absentee ballot. After realizing that the paperwork could be completed without leaving his home, Mr. Adler recognized the potential for a voting drive.

“Here in Israel, elections are taken seriously by the Orthodox community. Massive turnout is important,” he said.

As he embarked on the campaign, Mr. Adler sought assistance from the U.S. Embassy as well as the Israeli chapters of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Kory Bardash, chairman of the Israeli chapter of Republicans Abroad, immediately saw an opportunity.

Although American Jews historically have voted for the Democrats in overwhelming numbers, Orthodox Jews are more likely to vote for Republicans because of the party’s socially conservative platform and support for privately funded religious schools, Mr. Bardash said.

President Bush’s unwavering backing of Israel’s aggressive war against Palestinian militancy is expected to boost his standing among Jewish voters who make Israel their top issue.

“We couldn’t be happier,” said Mr. Bardash, who has provided booklets on how to register and vote. “The people-of-faith vote goes with the Republican ticket.”

He noted that the Orthodox community’s large families make the registration effort especially lucrative. One woman from Ohio reached in the drive signed up 14 family members from the same state.

However, he acknowledged that a large percentage of the ultra-Orthodox votes will be cast in New York, a Democratic stronghold that Mr. Kerry is expected to win.

The drive got another big push when a group of influential American rabbis signed a public letter calling on Americans in Israel to send in absentee ballots.

The letter, which appeared in major ultra-Orthodox newspapers last month, included an unusually sharp rebuke to those who don’t exercise their voting rights.

“Whoever does not do so bears testimony upon himself that the interests of fellow Jews do not concern him,” the letter said.

That sent Mr. Adler barnstorming for several weeks through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Israel. His mobile phone is constantly chirping with calls from field volunteers.

In Jerusalem’s Haredi neighborhood of Har Nof, Mr. Adler propositioned potential absentee voters on a sidewalk outside the Zichron Yosef synagogue with “Are You an American?”

Inside the synagogue lobby, ultra-Orthodox men furrowed their brows as they pondered registration-form stumpers such as naming the year they last voted.

Michael Sitzman, 67, said he came to the synagogue to attend a bar mitzvah, but took the opportunity to register for his first election since leaving the United States 40 years ago.

When asked what triggered the first rabbinic absentee ballot order, Mr. Sitzman speculated that the rabbis “want to show that Jews living here are a force to be heard.”

Mr. Adler insists that he is not concerned with who wins the election but only with how many registration forms he can distribute.

With the wide eyes of a child showing off a baseball card collection, he fanned through a loose leaf folder with about 1,200 registration forms that he plans to return to U.S. election boards.

“What hurts,” he said, “is that for every one vote I got, I could be getting five more.”

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