Could New York City Lose Its Last Remaining Jewish Congressman?

The clock was nearing midnight on Shavuot, the Jewish Feast of Weeks, when Ruth W. Messinger offered a prophetic political warning to a crowd munching on holiday cheesecake at the Jewish community center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

For a century, New York has been the center of Jewish political power in the United States. So much so that as recently as the 1990s, Jewish lawmakers made up roughly about half of New York City’s delegation to the House of Representatives.

Now, Ms. Messinger said at the event earlier this month, gesturing to the frumpily dressed older man sitting beside her, there is only one left — Representative Jerrold Nadler — and he could soon be ousted in this summer’s primary.

“For those of you who are old and don’t believe this because you remember the glorious past, it would mean that New York City would no longer have a single Jewish representative in Congress,” said Ms. Messinger, an elder stateswoman in Manhattan’s liberal Jewish circles, who is backing Mr. Nadler.

“This is, as far as I know, the largest concentration of Jews anywhere in the world,” she added, “so that’s pretty dramatic.”

Mr. Nadler, an Upper West Side Democrat who is the longest-serving Jewish member of the House, finds himself fighting for political survival this summer after a court-appointed mapmaker combined key parts of his district with the Upper East Side seat represented by Representative Carolyn Maloney.

The Aug. 23 contest between two powerful Democratic House committee chairs, both nearing the end of storied careers, will undoubtedly turn on many factors, grand and prosaic: ideology, geography, longstanding political rivalries and who turns out to the polls in New York’s sleepy end of summer.

But for Jews, who once numbered 2 million people in New York City and have done as much as any group to shape its modern identity, the race also has the potential to be a watershed moment — a test of how much being an identifiably Jewish candidate still matters in a city where the tides of demographic and political clout have slowly shifted toward New Yorkers of Black, Latino and Asian heritage.

“At a gut level, New York City without a Jewish representative would feel like — someplace else,” said Letty Cottin Pogrebin, an author, founding editor of Ms. Magazine and self-described “dyed-in-the-wool New York Jew.”

“You know, there are 57 varieties of Jews. We are racially and politically and religiously diverse to the point of lunacy sometimes,” she said. “You need somebody in the room who can decode our differences and explain the complexity of our issues.”

A Guide to New York’s 2022 Primary Elections

As prominent Democratic officials seek to defend their records, Republicans see opportunities to make inroads in general election races.

  • Governor’s Race: Gov. Kathy Hochul, the incumbent, will face off against Jumaane Williams and Tom Suozzi in a Democratic primary on June 28.
  • Adams’s Endorsement: The New York City mayor gave Ms. Hochul a valuable, if belated, endorsement that could help her shore up support among Black and Latino voters.
  • 15 Democrats, 1 Seat: A Trump prosecutor. An ex-congressman. Bill de Blasio. A newly redrawn House district in New York City may be one of the largest and most freewheeling primaries in the nation.
  • Maloney vs. Nadler: The new congressional lines have put the two stalwart Manhattan Democrats on a collision course in the Aug. 23 primary.
  • Offensive Remarks: Carl P. Paladino, a Republican running for a House seat in Western New York, recently drew backlash for praising Adolf Hitler in an interview dating back to 2021.

Mr. Nadler, 75, has acknowledged his particular status on the campaign trail, and wears his Jewishness with pride. Raised Orthodox in 1950s Brooklyn, he attended a Crown Heights yeshiva before his desire to study neuroscience led him to Stuyvesant High School. He still speaks some Yiddish, worships at B’nai Jeshurun, a historic Upper West Side synagogue, and sent some of his constituents swooning when he showed up to Donald J. Trump’s impeachment vote toting a babka from Zabar’s.

Mr. Nadler attends religious services at B’nai Jeshurun, a synagogue on West 88th Street in Manhattan.Credit…Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images — LightRocket, via Getty Images

So far, though, he has mostly left it to others to make an identity-based case for his candidacy, opting to spend his own time talking about his record as a progressive stalwart. Mr. Nadler declined an interview request.

New York sent its first Jewish representative, a merchant named Emanuel B. Hart, to Congress in 1851. By 1992, when Mr. Nadler arrived in the House, there were eight Jewish members representing parts of New York City alone.

Today, nine of the 13 members representing parts of the five boroughs are Black or Latino. Another is Asian American.

No one is suggesting that Jewish politicians will be locked out of power permanently in New York if Mr. Nadler loses. There are other Jewish candidates running for city House seats this year, including Max Rose, Daniel Goldman and Robert Zimmerman, though each faces an uphill fight to win. Others will undoubtedly emerge in future elections, including from the city’s fast-growing ultra-Orthodox communities. And Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader, is also Jewish.

But the rise and fall of Jewish influence is a clear, familiar arc in a city that has absorbed waves of immigrants, who grew in numbers, economic power and, eventually, political stature — only to be supplanted by those who followed. It happened to the Dutch, English, Germans, Irish and Italians, and now to New York’s Jews, who at their peak in the 1950s accounted for a quarter or more of the city’s total population and gained footholds at all levels of government.

Since then, large numbers of Jews have left the city, said Daniel Soyer, a historian at Fordham University who has written about New York Jewish history, bringing the present population to just over 1 million. At the same time, many American Jews began to assimilate and secularize, weakening the shared identity that drove them to vote as a cohesive group and elect their own candidates; some left the Democratic Party, their longtime home.

The exception has been ultra-Orthodox communities in Brooklyn and the lower Hudson Valley. But while they have succeeded in electing their own to state and local offices, they exercise less sway at the congressional level.

Successive cycles of redistricting have not helped, forcing New York to shed congressional seats and fracturing Jewish enclaves between districts. Mr. Nadler’s current seat, New York’s 10th District, had been deliberately drawn to connect Jewish communities on the West Side of Manhattan with Orthodox ones in Brooklyn’s Borough Park. This year, the court mapmaker severed the two areas.

“When I was in Congress, you could have a minyan in the New York delegation,” said Steve Israel, a Democrat who once represented Nassau County and parts of Queens in Congress. “We went from a minyan to a minority to hardly anybody.”

The dwindling was gradual, and in some cases merely a matter of chance. In 1992, Bill Green, a liberal Republican from the Upper East Side, lost to a young upstart, Ms. Maloney. The same year, Representative Stephen J. Solarz saw his Brooklyn district cracked in redistricting and lost in a bid for a neighboring seat drawn to empower Hispanic voters.

Gary L. Ackerman, another long-tenured Jewish lawmaker known for importing kosher deli food for an annual Washington fund-raiser, retired during the last redistricting cycle in 2012, when mapmakers stitched together growing Asian populations, which in turn led to the election of the city’s first Asian congresswoman, Grace Meng.

“There are new groups coming in who are flexing their political power,” said Eliot L. Engel, a former Jewish congressman from the Bronx who lost a Democratic primary in 2020 to Jamaal Bowman, a young Black educator. “I guess that’s what makes America great.”

Those changes have helped push Jews toward coalition building, de-emphasizing the need for Jewish candidates to represent Jewish interests.

Mr. Israel recalled a meeting with the Israeli consul general in New York as early as 2016 in which the diplomat talked openly about the need to recalibrate his country’s outreach to cultivate stronger relationships with a rising cohort of Black and Latino lawmakers.

“They saw this coming and realized that being able to count on a delegation of Engels, Ackermans, Nadlers and Israels was not going to last for long,” Mr. Israel said.

The new 12th Congressional District — which covers the width of Manhattan, from Union Square roughly to the top of Central Park — is believed to be the most Jewish in the country, home to a diverse array of Orthodox, conservative, reform and secular Jews.

Ms. Maloney, who is Presbyterian but represents a sizable Jewish population on the East Side, has positioned herself as a staunch ally of Israel and American Jews.

Her campaign is challenging Mr. Nadler for Jewish votes and has highlighted her authorship of a bill promoting Holocaust education and, above all, a vote against former President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. That position won her plaudits from more conservative segments of New York’s Jewish community, which condemned Mr. Nadler for supporting the deal.

“It’s not about the religion, it’s about the beliefs,” said Harley Lippman, a New York businessman active in Jewish-Israeli relations. He argued that non-Jews like Ms. Maloney were often more effective “because no one could say they are biased.”

Ms. Maloney accused Mr. Nadler of using his Jewishness as a divisive campaign tactic.Credit…Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

“We may take a certain pride — like an Italian-American would if he sees a congressmen with a vowel at the end of the last name — but it’s not much more than trivia,” said Mr. Lippman, who is registered to vote in Florida, but is raising money for Ms. Maloney.

Ms. Maloney was less forgiving in an interview, accusing Mr. Nadler and his allies of wielding his Jewishness as a “divisive tactic” in the race. (A third Democrat, Suraj Patel, is also competing in the race.)

“It’s a strange way to run, it’s sort of like, ‘Vote for me, I’m the only woman, or I’m the only white person, I’m the only Black person,’” she said. “Why don’t you put forward your statement, your issues, what you’ve done and the merit you bring to the race.”

Major pro-Israel political groups, who have spent millions of dollars in Democratic primaries across the country this year, appear to be split on the Nadler-Maloney race.

Marshall Wittmann, a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, pointed out that the group’s PAC had contributed to both candidates earlier this year “in recognition of their support for the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

J Street, the pro-Israel lobby that tries to act as a liberal counterweight to AIPAC, plans to raise as much as six figures to support Mr. Nadler.

Mr. Nadler’s allies argue that on matters of substance, representation and gut-level identity, he brings qualities to his role that are different from those a non-Jewish person could offer.

In an era when his party’s left flank has grown increasingly hostile to Israel, his supporters contend that Mr. Nadler has used his position as the informal dean of the House Jewish caucus to try to bridge more traditional Zionists and Israel’s progressive critics on issues like the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions Movement and support for Israeli defense.

His 2015 vote for the Iran deal — detailed in a 5,200-word essay — soured his relationship, perhaps permanently, with ultra-Orthodox communities he represents. But it also opened the door for greater support.

“No one doubts Jerry’s progressive bona fides and no one doubts his commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship,” said Representative Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat who is retiring to lead the American Jewish Committee. “That’s a really, really important role, especially at this moment.”

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