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DC Jews: Disenfranchised or Just Complaining?

Stephen Richer is President of Gather the Jews.  Do not blame GTJ as an organization for this article’s shortcomings or Stephen’s personal shortcomings.

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Given the large number of lawyers in the young Jewish adult community, this story is too good to pass up… Even though I’m a little late to the punch.

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Rabbi Herzfeld. Picture from the Jewish Outreach Institute

On January 6, 2012, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of DC’s Ohev Sholom synagogue (and friend of this site) finalized a settlement with DC Mayor Vincent Gray and the District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics (“The Board”).

The settlement resolves a case that launched on April 13, 2011, when Rabbi Herzfled filed a complaint against The Board for holding a special election on April 26, 2011 – the last day of Passover.  As Herzfeld noted, and as most readers of this website can probably tell you, Orthodox Jews are religiously proscribed from writing on the final day of Passover – a ban that would keep them from voting.

When Herzfeld originally brought the issue to the attention of The Board, the election officials said that “their hands were tied” by the DC law that requires a special election to be held on the first Tuesday that is at least 114 days after the vacancy is certified.

Herzfeld requested that if The Board couldn’t change the date, it should extend poll closing time by two hours, from 8:00 pm to 10:00 pm, thereby allowing observant Jews to run to polls immediately after sundown.  The Board responded that the logistics of this would be impossible; they could not, at late notice, arrange for all 142 polling places to stay open two extra hours.

But The Board did not ignore the potential hardship caused by the date of election.  In light of the scheduling conflict, The Board arranged for absentee ballots, early voting ballots, and it even setup absentee ballot applications at several synagogues and Jewish organizations.

Steven Lieberman. Picture from Rothwell, Figg, Ernst & Manbeck, P.C.

Still, Herzfeld felt that this was not good enough, and he filed a suit alleging that The Board had violated the First (Freedom of Religion) and Fifth (Due Process) Amendment rights of DC’s observant Jews.  Herzfeld’s long-time friend and legal counselor Steven Lieberman (Rothwell, Figg, Ernst & Manbeck, P.C.) served as Herzfeld’s lawyer.

According to Lieberman, Herzfeld proceeded with the suit because “he saw that he would be unable to go to the polls and vote in this special election.  He considered it an important civic duty.”  Lieberman proceeded to say that the early voting measures taken by The Board “were inadequate” and that many in the Orthodox Jewish community would be effectively disenfranchised.

Not everyone in the Jewish community took this line, however, and some even rejected the ideas behind Herzfeld’s suit.  Rabbi Barry Freundel – the dynamo of Georgetown’s Kesher Israel Synagogue – filed a statement with the court on April 15, 2011 stating that,

“It is my view that, while it is unfortunate that by operation of law the election falls on the last day of Passover, and I am, therefore, unable to vote at a polling station on that day because of my religious beliefs, the District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics has made a fair and reasonable accommodation for me and my similarly situated congregants by having an early voting process and by being willing, if requested, to deliver absentee ballots for eligible voters to the synagogues on a Sunday before the election.”

Rabbi Freundel. Picture from Kesher Congregant

Over the phone, Freundel  remarked that there could be some potential backlash to the Herzfeld suit.  “[The Board] was remarkably, remarkably flexible.  [Herzfeld] potentially made enemies with a lot of people who were working to accommodate the Jewish community.”

Lieberman responded – on a separate phone call – to Freundel’s actions with some vitriol, “Rabbi Freundel was just wrong.  For whatever reason, Rabbi Freundel decided that he wanted to pander to the District of Columbia.  He made a statement that was not in the interests of the Jewish community or his congregants.  I thought it was shocking that an Orthodox rabbi would take that position.”

Undeterred by Freundel’s signed statement, Herzfeld and Lieberman pushed on.  By this point they couldn’t get change things to their liking for the special election day, but they could win a battle for the future.

Standing before U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, Herzfeld and Lieberman argued that surely The Board wouldn’t have remained as inflexible had the special election day landed on Christmas.  The Board countered that it, in fact, would have.  Judge Sullivan expressed skepticism and hoped that all necessary steps would be taken in the future to avoid such a conflict.

The ramifications of the constitutional assertion – that The Board violated the First and Fifth Amendments of observant DC Jews – extends beyond this DC election.   The much-watched and much-discussed South Carolina GOP primary took place on January 21, 2012 – a Saturday.  The polls opened at 7:00 AM and closed at 7:00 PM (2012 Election Central).  Orthodox Jews are also not allowed to write on Saturday, and Havdallah (Shabbat closing prayers) took place at 5:58 PM on the 21st, hardly enough time to finish prayers and get to the polls.  Would Herzfeld and Lieberman argue that the South Carolina GOP also violated the First and Fifth Amendments?

Must government constitutionally avoid conflict with religions?  Is it enough that the government doesn’t actively prohibit or suppress the practice of a religion?  Or must the government draft its laws and set its dates with religions in mind?

If it must, then what about a hypothetical situation in which new religions emerge and every day of the week is filled with a day of rest (Jews Saturday, Christians Sunday, Group A Monday, etc.)?  Would governments be unable to schedule elections because it would inevitably conflict with the holy day of one religion?  Certainly the government couldn’t say the size of the religion dictates whether or not the religion has constitutional protection – it would be a true First Amendment violation to elevate one religion over another.

It certainly would be nice if elections avoided conflict with religions (much the same way you wouldn’t want to schedule a vote on the day of the Super Bowl), but does the Constitution mandate this?  Must government accommodate religion?  Or just allow for its free practice?

Ilya Shapiro. Picture from the Cato Institute

When asked the question, Ilya Shapiro – Senior Fellow in Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute –  stated,  “Just as a broken clock is right twice a day, the District of Columbia has the better of the argument here.  The Constitution doesn’t even demand that D.C. accommodate those unable to vote on election day (for religious reasons or otherwise), though absentee ballots are good public policy.”

But for better or for worse, this issue will not be resolved through Herzfeld’s recent suit.   As noted at the beginning of this article, Herzfeld and Lieberman came to an agreement with The Board and Mayor Gray on January 6, 2012 that new legislative measures would be introduced to accommodate for future religious conflicts.

This seems an eminently practical solution.  But it does not answer the Constitutional question.  Perhaps I’ll bring a few experts (Nat and Alyza Lewin are you out there?) to shed further light on this topic.

Apologies for the long post, but this is really interesting subject with a great local spin!

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Since writing this article, The New York Times has posted this article on the Saturday caucus going in Nevada.

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Documents:

Articles:

People:

Places:

Star & Shamrock — A restaurant that unites my peoples! (redheads and Jews)*

All mediocre photography is the fault of Stephen I. Richer.

The number of meals I have at Jewish-themed restaurants is sometimes overwhelming (2 in the past 55 days…).

On November 30, 2011, I took my Canadian date to a sumptuous meal at DISTRIKT Bistro — DC’s newest kosher restaurant (see my review here).

Unfazed by this Jewish culinary outing, I lunched on Sunday at Star and Shamrock Tavern and Deli, 1341 H Street, NE.

I’ve been meaning to try Star and Shamrock for a long time.  It opened in early 2011, but my interest was really piqued when the Washington Post mentioned both Star and Shamrock and GTJ in this December article on young DC Jews.

Better late than never!

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From the outside, Star and Shamrock could not be better.  A tavern-style sign bears a giant Star of David with an Irish clover in the middle.  If that doesn’t draw your attention, then the restaurant’s storefront title surely will:  “Star” — written in what looks like Irish characters — and “Shamrock” — written in what looks like Hebrew characters.  So great.

Almost by definition, the inside couldn’t be as good as the outside, but it was still pretty solid.  The restaurant features a Jewish-style deli and an Irish-style pub.  All of your favorite deli sandwiches are there: Corned beef, pastrami, beef brisket, liverwurst, etc.  Other Jewish staples also make appearances throughout the menu: Latkes, reubens, Hebrew National franks, Jewish rye bread, etc.  (see the menu here)

Lame as I am, I went with a tuna sandwich, but my date — a tall brunette (**) with an obsession for yogurt, tennis, and model rockets — was a bit more adventuresome and ordered the Latke Madness: “3 potato pancakes, hot corned beef, griddle sauerkraut, swiss.”

I finished my sandwich quickly in the hopes of trying a bit of the Latke Madness.  It worked.  I got to try it.  “And it was good.”  (Genesis 1:31)  My date, admittedly a picky eater, praised the food in less divine terms, but still gave it a thumbs up.

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Beyond the deli sandwiches, Star and Shamrock is also a place to drink (drink menu), watch sports (lots of TVs), and socialize.  On Monday nights, S&S hosts a trivia night; Tuesday night is kids eat free night (defined by age, not maturity level… damn!); and Thursday night has live music (see full “Happenings” list).

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You may not be able to see it, but trust me, it's a picture of a menorah on a mantel.

I would have liked a stronger Jewish theme to the restaurant.  As it is, Judaism is limited to the exterior, the menu, and the menorahs on the mantel.  Perhaps this is best for attracting the non-Jewish customer, but I was definitely disappointed when I got a “no” upon asking the waiter if I could answer Jewish trivia for a discount (I guess that’s the Mr. Yogato in me).   There’s also the fact that the restaurant is NOT kosher, which of course detracts from the Jewishness of the place, though I can hardly blame the owners given my own experience with the Kosher process.  (Speaking of kosher food… Maoz recently closed, so we’re back to just two NW kosher restaurants)

The other problem is the obvious one: location.  I can count the number of times I’ve been to NE on two hands, and most GTJ readers are similarly ensconced in NW.  I haven’t explored how to get around the metro limitation — I would imagine Mike Weinberg knows of a bus that goes to H Street, NE — so for now, the only times I’ll go to S&S are when I can bum a ride.

But overall, the restaurant is very solid and definitely worth checking out if you’re on H Street, NE.

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Souvenir S&S t-shirts.

Our meal, with tip, wound up costing $30 — probably about average for a $10 sandwich shop.

In true Twenty First Century fashion, we split the bill.

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To learn more about the restaurant and the owners Jewish/Irish background, see this Washington Post review.

I emailed the owner to get more information on the restaurant and to see if GTJ readers can have a discount, but I am impatient and didn’t want to wait to post this.  I will update the post when he replies.

(*) Though I am a redheaded Jew, I’m only 1/8 Irish, and the red hair probably doesn’t come from that side of the family…

(**) My date’s self-described hair color:  “A luxurious blend of mahogany and chestnut.”

 

 

DC Jewish Blog Round Up — Samantha gets a boy.

In case you weren’t able to read the other local Jewish blogs this week, here are a few of my favorite posts:

ShalomNova:

  • New Year, New Dating Approach: News flash:  Singles columnist Samantha has a boyfriend!  She’s apparently been dating him for a few months; am I the only guy that feels like I’ve been led on?  Now she’s out to help her roommate find a match, and she wonders if JDate is the only option.

Jewish Policy Center:

  • Iranian Plot in U.S. Foiled: If you haven’t read about the Iranian assassination plot in the U.S., read this article by Samara Greenberg.  Remember, the Iranian government is a peace-loving regime that should be offered a seat at the negotiating table.  I wonder if this will make Ron Paul end his sympathetic remarks for Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

ShalomDC – Weekly Jewish Wisdom (by Dr. Erica Brown)

  • Complex Happiness – The Release of Gilad Shalit: Dr. Brown discusses the release of Gilad Shalit in the context of Simchat Torah.  Interesting fact from the article:  “In the past 54 years, Israel has exchanged 13,509 prisoners for 16 soldiers.”

Also, Dr. Brown asks, “And if Gilad were allowed to languish in captivity to prevent this kind of leveraging, would any parent of sound mind be prepared to send a child into an army that is not committed to returning their children, whenever possible, home safely?”  Well… U.S. policy does not allow us to negotiate with terrorists, so if Shalit was American, he likely would have “languished” in prison.  American soldiers know this, yet we still have an Armed Force of about 1.5 million soldiers.  Does that mean there’s roughly 3 million American parents who are not “of sound mind?”

Washington Jewish Week:

  • JFNA bumps BDS backer from Heroes contest: The Jewish Federations of North America and Jewish Voice for Peace into a little spat over the latter’s support for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign.

 

Want to recommend a DC Jewish blog that we should be reading? Email stephen@gatherdc.org

Local Jewish blogs we’re reading:

 

 

Yom Kippur Events — Full listing!

YOM KIPPUR
Please note that many of these events require tickets/registration.

Kol Nidre — Friday, October 7

Yom Kippur — Saturday, October 8

Evening/Neilah — Saturday, October 8

Any options you think should be on our list but aren’t? Email Noa (Noa@gatherdc.org) or Stephen (Stephen@gatherdc.org)

 

DC Jewish Blog Round Up

Moment magazine names the top 10 Jewish apps.

In case you weren’t able to read the other local Jewish blogs this week, here are a few of my favorite articles:

The Blog at 16th and Q:

  • Is G-d Important?: Halley Cohen asks if God is still (or ever was) central to Judaism – a question that the J will explore on September 21.

Moment Magazine:

  • Top Ten Jewish Apps: Moment Magazine’s just-released September/October issue features a story on the top ten Jewish Apps.  My favorite is Jew Booth: “Sure, that photo of you at cousin Jake’s wedding looks nice, but does it need a little Jewish je ne sais quoi? Jew Booth is here to help. Take any photo and make it distinctly Jewish by adding a kippah, a Star of David necklace or other Jewish accouterments. Your Facebook friends will think you’ve undergone a religious transformation when they see photos of you wearing a black fedora; whether or not you clue them in to Jew Booth’s photographic trickery is up to you.”

Jewish Policy Center:

  • Remembering 9/11 in the U.S. – and Afghanistan? Samara Greenberg points out that it’s a bit hard for Afghanis to commemorate 9/11 when “only 8 percent of the Afghan men surveyed… said they know of ‘this event which the foreigners call 9/11.”  GTJ recently logged a couple hits from Afghanistan… perhaps we’re up to 8 percent there now too…

Want to recommend a DC Jewish blog that we should be reading? Email Stephen.richer@gmail.com