By Yosef Rosenfield, Features Editor
This Tuesday, November 3, my brother, Aryeh Rosenfield (YC ‘17), will be running as an Independent for Rhode Island House of Representatives in District 4. He decided to run for office simply because this position would otherwise likely be filled by an unopposed incumbent, so his candidacy would therefore make the election a little more democratic. My brother’s policies are few and simple — in a video he shared on his Facebook page on June 28 announcing his bid for State Representative, he stated: “I am a staunch believer in individual rights and free markets.” He counted on being able to collect at least 50 signatures from friends and acquaintances in the Providence Jewish community in order to have his name listed on the ballot.
Nothing seemed religiously controversial to me about a well-educated, politically informed Orthodox Jew participating in an election. In fact, my brother went through the same process in 2018, collecting enough signatures to join the race for RI General Assembly with support from many rabbis and other Jews in the district. He even received 12% of the vote, despite living in a deep blue state and having no campaign. But to my surprise, my family’s efforts to collect signatures this time around were met with visible hesitation and, in some cases, refusal. I was puzzled by such reluctance to help a member of the community and fellow Jew when the downsides were essentially non-existent.
My befuddlement only increased when I learned of one person’s reasons for refusing to offer his signature. This member of my Jewish community (whose identity is unknown to me) felt that it is not proper for Orthodox Jews to occupy political positions. He stated further that he personally did not support my brother’s political views and consequently declined my father’s request to sign the form. Frankly, I was shocked to hear about this reaction. Firstly, I had a hard time believing that someone in Providence, RI, a city full of very open-minded people in terms of their hashkafa (religious outlook), would have a problem with a Jew running for office. This person appeared especially out of place, considering how many well-respected rabbis and leaders of the Providence Jewish community had happily signed my brother’s candidacy form this year and in 2018. As for this person’s political differences, I still found no reason for him to withhold his signature. My brother already stands less of a chance at winning this year than in 2018 given the expected greater turnout for the presidential election (assuring more Democratic voters and therefore a smaller percentage of Independent voters). Furthermore, signing the paper was of course neither a vote for Aryeh Rosenfield nor an endorsement of his policies, but only a small step toward putting his name on the ballot come November.
As appalled as I was, my brother took even greater issue with this person’s perspective. “Saying that Jews shouldn’t be in office is pretty much as antisemitic as it gets,” he pointed out. To be honest, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but when put in those terms this individual’s viewpoint really does carry undertones of prejudice. Contemplating this issue reminded me of a similarly jarring reaction to my brother’s candidacy two years ago. A mutual friend of ours had accused my brother of being homophobic, claiming that the real reason he was running against Rebecca Kislak was that he wanted to remove the married lesbian — who coincidentally is also Jewish — from office. Beyond contradicting my brother’s socio-politically libertarian attitude, this theory ignored the fact that my brother had to file paperwork to confirm his candidacy long before Kislak won the primary. There was no way for him to know that he would be running against her in the general election. Yet that didn’t stop this person from comparing the two Jewish candidates’ levels of religious observance and assuming that my Orthodox brother was somehow trying to condemn Kislak’s homosexuality by joining the election.
Thankfully, Providence as a whole is an extremely welcoming and accepting place, and the above examples of disapproval are rare exceptions to the Jewish community’s overwhelming kindness and support. They do, however, raise the concern that not only within fragmented neighborhoods but also among closely connected religious communities, politics can and often does bring out the worst in people. Furthermore, these cases reveal an underlying disunity that is present even in some of the most cohesive Jewish circles. I guess I was just hoping we could do better.