Tea for Two,000

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

On Thursday, April 15th, I attended the Chicago Tea Party Rally at Daley Center. Had someone told me fifteen years ago I would be there, I would have told them they were crazy. Like so many other Americans and of late many fellow Jews as well, I have undergone a metamorphoses in my life. Let me explain.

When I was a child, my mother would bring my brother and I with her to vote. We would go to Seth Low Junior High School and with a sense of solemnity and responsibility we would stand in the voting booth watching my mother pull the handle closing the curtain around us. She would select levers all in a row. She voted Democrat. She explained to us that the responsibility to select government officials is one that the Jewish community in particular cherishes. It is important for us to select candidates that are good for the country and good for the Jewish people – candidates who stand with the working class. She adjured us never to forget our Jewish responsibility to vote.

And when it came time for me to join the voting public, I dutifully followed my mother’s direction. I was a Democrat, a liberal with a capital “L” The Democrats stood for the “little guy” against big business. They felt the needs of the average citizen and were committed to meeting those needs. They understood the horror of the Holocaust and the need for a Jewish State. I remember watching the Democrat convention on black and white TV as they reviewed their positions. When it came to the support of Israel everyone rose to his or her feet applauding wildly. Yes, the Democrats were good for the country and good for the Jews.

Yet things started to change. I noticed that ever so gradually the Democrats seemed to place less emphasis upon the “Protestant ethic” – the foundational values upon which our country was established – the work ethic, personal responsibility, Biblical morality – those moral and ethical principles so much a part of my Jewish upbringing and my public school education. They seemed to support the perceived “underdog” of the day as the all important bottom line in their world view, forgiving that perceived underdog for not upholding the life values that Judaism expounded and upon which our American society was built. Yet, as a Jew, how could I severe myself from the party that supported unions, welfare, the rights of the worker, and the State of Israel?

Time marched on. It became apparent to me that the “welfare state,” so much the creation of the Democrats, was going in the wrong direction. I began to rethink my life experience. When I was a child, our family of five lived in a one-room bedroom apartment, “to the back” as they say in New York. All our windows faced a dark alley between our building and the next. One day my Dad sat us around the kitchen table which was a real struggle requiring moving the table, squeezing in and moving the table back once more. He was completing an application for us to move into a city housing project expressly built to accommodate families in our income bracket – the lower middle class.

We applied for a two-bedroom apartment. The apartment included a small dinette as well, in which we could all sit around our table comfortably. Every day we would wait as Dad opened the mailbox. Then one day the response to his application arrived. We were rejected for a two-bedroom apartment. The letter stated that given we were a family of five we were required to rent a three-bedroom apartment. Dad couldn’t afford the rent for the three bedrooms. We remained where we were.

At the time, I was very much aware of the reality that the City of New York built thousands upon thousands of apartments for the poor – those living on public assistance. Families the size of ours were living in three bedroom apartments for rents scaled down to fit their economic condition. What I found baffling was that these low cost projects included parking lots. We couldn’t afford a car. I wondered how it was possible for families who weren’t making a living and depended upon public assistance – welfare – could afford an automobile.

When I was eighteen we took advantage of the opportunity to move into Luna Park, a cooperative development in Coney Island. My brother Ken and I contributed the money we had saved from working during the summers so that our family could afford to buy into the cooperative. Imagine – a three-bedroom apartment with windows looking out upon the Atlantic. Sunny and airy, it was our dream come true.

My Dad, always the activist, ran for the co-op Board. He became the volunteer Vice-President of a “village” of almost 1,600 families.

I remember when my Dad sought out the reasons why we were losing staff. Shockingly, he learned that in spite of the fact that the co-op provided its workers, its union workers, with a good salary package, many of them found that going on welfare afforded their families a better life style. Although they wanted to work, their family needs required they opt to become welfare recipients. Overall, New York welfare, without the need to pay taxes and with free medical care, food stamps, you name it, provided these families with a better standard of living. The men told my Dad they wanted to work but they simply couldn’t afford to for the sake of their families. They had swallowed their pride and dignity and applied for public assistance. Something was dreadfully wrong!

More and more the Democrats were moving away from what they formerly stood for. Waiving the banner of individual rights they became the party that de facto supported the erosion of traditional moral values in America. Their support of the nuclear family, husband, wife and children, as the essential building block of society began to wane. And when it came to Israel, they had begun to express ever greater sympathy for its enemies, the “underdogs”, the Palestinians, than for this singular democracy in an ocean of tyranny. A more “balanced” view of the conflict in the Middle East was emerging in which both sides were found wanting in the quest for peace.

It was at this point I became aware of another voice. Being liberal no longer resonated with me as it had in the past. I began to see myself as a moderate – one who understands the needs of the “underdog” and believes government has a role to play in easing his burden in life, but as well one who holds fast to the moral and ethical values that built America and were premised upon our Torah. I, for example, found the general liberal Jewish negative knee jerk reaction to the “Christian right” incomprehensible. The mantra chanted by so many of my coreligionists that we must continue our outreach and solidarity with the mainline Protestant Churches, ignoring their positions taken against Israel, while turning our backs upon the Fundamentalists because of their views on “the end of days” although these Churches were the strongest and it seemed to me very influential supporters of Israel in the halls of Congress, was baffling. I found myself more comfortable with the Christian right on the moral issues of the day, seeing the mainline Churches capitulating on values that, as a child, represented the attitudes of all Americans. In dealing with Christian clergy, as an Orthodox Rabbi I felt much more comfortable with those clergy affiliated with the Evangelical and fundamentalist churches than I did with those who were part of the mainline Churches. And so it was that on the day before the Tea Party at the Daley Center in Chicago, I met with a young Orthodox man running for Congress – a Republican, a Conservative Republican.

Joel Pollak received national acclaim last year when, as a law student at Harvard, he took on Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts. Pollak really got under the Congressman’s skin. His questions were my questions and Frank’s attempts to brush him off didn’t sit well with the audience or me.

Mr. Pollak visited me at my home a day before the Tea Party. We spoke for about three hours. His positions resonated with me. On every issue we reviewed, both national and international, I found myself in total accord with his well-articulated views. Adding to this was my deep concern relative to the health care legislation recently passed by Congress and my sense now clearly demonstrated that our President was no friend of Israel. Having lived in both Canada and the United Kingdom, I viewed the President’s push for universal government provided health care as dangerous. The icing on the cake, the most compelling issue of the day for me was that my Congresswoman, Jan Schakowsky, a typical Jewish liberal, is a stalwart supporter of President Obama’s new America, even to the extent of refusing to admit the President is no friend of Israel.

I attended the Tea Party at the Daley Center. The almost 2,000 folks were literally my next-door neighbors. It was obvious from the clever and well designed hand held signs, to the manner in which the entire event was conducted, that the Tea Party movement is truly a grass roots expression.

And then Joel Pollak got up to speak, replete with kipa and guitar. He magnetized the crowd. From health care, to economics, from taxes, to Israel, his remarks were met with cheers. Where were the racists? Where were the anti-Semites? I did, however, note African Americans and Latinos, as well as others visibly part of other minorities and ethnic groups peppering the crowd. And then Joel picked up his guitar and sang a ballad he wrote regarding the present political situation in America asking the crowd to join in the chorus. The crowd was ecstatic!

“The times they are a changin.” When first sung, these words reflected the political turmoil of the 60s. Today, they reflect the political turmoil of our day. We Jews must take serious stock of the political world we live in. Slogans must be discarded. Old definitions must be cast aside. Our touchstones in politics must be those Jewish values of decency and morality we hold dear complimented by our sense of what is good for America and good for the Jewish People. We are faced with a serious challenge. I pray we can meet it head on.