By: Larry Yudelson
Hundreds of conservative political activists were gathered in a hotel ballroom three blocks from the White House for the luncheon opening the fourth annual “Road to Majority” conference of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) were mentally preparing the short speeches each would soon deliver.
But first, Dara, Sammy, and Ezra Berger — students at the Moriah School in Englewood — opened the event by leading the Pledge of Allegiance.
Meet the 21st century version of the Christian Coalition — eager to put Orthodox Jews front and center.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition was founded by former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed in 2009 to bring together Christian evangelicals and Tea Party conservatives. Its convention last month included speeches from leading Republicans, including presidential contenders Jeb Bush and Rubio.
Amid it all, Dr. Alan Berger, Dara, Sammy, and Ezra’s father, an obstetrician by profession and a political advocate by avocation (and former candidate for mayor of Englewood), felt very much at home as an Orthodox Jew.
“We have shared conservative values,” he said. “We have a couple of differences between our groups in terms of religion, but we have a lot in common.”
Berger was brought into the group by Jeff Ballabon, whose political accomplishments include heading President George W. Bush’s 2004 outreach to Orthodox Jews.
Last year’s conference had a full Shabbat program, including a minyan. That didn’t work out this year, Berger said, because of issues with the hotel. But that effort reflects a desire by Reed’s organization “to reach out to the Jewish people, mostly the more observant.”
The convention served Berger’s family kosher food. “They made sure everybody at the table had kosher food. They were so worried that nothing non-kosher would be near us,” he said.
It wasn’t just kosher food that made Berger feel comfortable. The organization “is very pro Israel.” he said. “They have the Israeli flag on stage at every event. When it comes to Israel, the whole room stands up and applauds.”
One area where Berger finds he disagrees with the Christian activists: “the definition of the beginning of life.”
“The conservative right will always talk about being anti-abortion,” he said. “In my personal travels, I’ve brought up a lot the issue of the exceptions. I’m an obstetrician. I present scenarios where we as Jews define life as beginning at birth, not conception. I personally don’t do abortions, but if a mother’s life is at stake, the mother’s life comes first.”
In his conversations, “I’ve gotten most evangelicals to agree that there should be exceptions. Having dialogue on the issue makes sure that all bills will have those exceptions.”
Berger’s political activism includes serving on the board of directors of Norpac, the pro-Israel political action committee; belonging to the leadership council of the Republican Jewish Coalition, and being a leader of the Northern New Jersey chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition. He also has donated tens of thousands of dollars to political candidates, most of them Republican.
Berger traces his political activism to the example of his rabbi when he was growing up. That was Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, the founding rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills in Queens.
“He always instilled in us the importance of having a connection to government,” Berger said. “He would say that had we had the connection to the president’s office and a lot of Washington back in the 1940s, maybe things would have been different.”
As a student at Yeshiva College in the 1980s, Berger served as president of one of the school’s student councils. In 2009, he ran for mayor of Englewood. He lost, winning only 30 percent of the vote against the Democratic candidate, but feels satisfied “that I was able to get people to listen to fiscal conservatism.” For him, the race was about conversations he had. “I spent no money, I put up zero signs.
“I knew I probably would lose,” he said. “It’s not always about the flashiest sign, it’s about getting to the people. I like talking one on one to people.”
Berger thinks the campaign was successful. He thinks he helped Governor Chris Christie do better than he would otherwise have done. (Berger said he got more votes than Christie did in Englewood.)
And he thinks his campaign has pushed the winner, Frank Huttle, to refrain from raising taxes, “because he knows I would be out there” opposing him.
For Berger, the conversations aren’t just to win over potential voters.
“You have to listen to the other side. I’m a right-wing conservative Orthodox Jew who politically has conversations with the left,” he said.
That includes meeting — and posing for pictures — with President Barack Obama and former president Bill Clinton.
“You have to have respect for the office,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I want them to stay in office.”
And he was happy to attend a Norpac event supporting Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s campaign for Senate.
“I’m a realist,” he said. “Booker’s going to win. You have to work with both sides.”
Sometimes the conversations lead to relationships.
Berger and his brother Marc went down to Washington the day that Rand Paul was sworn in as senator from Kentucky. “We introduced ourselves and have had a friendly relationship with him. We never gave him a penny. We’ve just kept the dialogue going on to the point that when he was in Lakewood for a luncheon in June, we got a call that he was going to be there and went down to say hello,” Berger said.
The Lakewood visit was part of Paul’s quest to lead the Republican 2016 presidential slate.
“Many people in the community have written him off as his father’s son,” said Berger. Ron Paul, Rand Paul’s father, was notorious in Jewish political circles for opposing foreign aid to Israel (and everywhere else). The younger Paul, Berger said, “is willing to listen to what you have to say. He’s willing to disagree.”
As for the younger Bergers — who were accompanied not only by their father but also by their mother, Deborah — the trip to Washington gave them a chance to hear some speeches, and also to meet a whole slew of Republican politicians and presidential contenders.
“My kids got to meet everybody: Paul Ryan, Sarah Palin, Jeb Bush, John Bolton, Rick Perry,” Berger said. “I was able to get my kids into the green room and have a personal meeting with Rick Perry. He had a conversation with each of my kids individually.”