If there is one thing Nathan Diament has learned from his years as the Orthodox Union’s representative in Washington it’s that casting ballots counts.
“If we want the power of our community to be heard on issues, we need to show up at the voting booth,” said Diament during an Oct. 17 town hall meeting at Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park.
The OU director of public policy — who has held the position since the organization opened its DC office in 1998 — said that when the Orthodox community does not vote in numbers commensurate with the size of its ranks, it makes it harder to have an influence on such issues as legislation that benefits families of day school students.
Speaking just three weeks before the presidential election, Diament spent most of the time fielding wide-ranging audience questions on education and taxes, charter schools, Israel, Iran, the Arab Spring, abortion and contraceptives, and the relationship of President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, with the Jewish community.
Diament said Orthodox constituents make up more of a swing vote than other segments of the Jewish community. Despite the fact that a majority of Orthodox voters cast their ballots for Republicans George W. Bush and John McCain in the last two presidential elections, they do share many of the concerns of the rest of the Jewish community, who tend to vote Democratic, particularly the economy, health care, and Social Security.
One major issue concerning Orthodox voters who send their children to yeshivas and day schools is the candidates’ educational polices.
“President Obama has pushed some sorts of educational reform in ways that have frankly not made the teachers’ unions and some others so happy by expanding charter schools and pushing other reforms,” said Diament, who pointed out Hebrew-language charter schools do not meet any needs of the Orthodox because they have no religious component.
Romney, on the other hand, in a speech delivered several months ago, proposed expansion of the Washington, DC, Opportunity Scholarship Program, allowing students receiving federal education aid expanded options for enrolling in the schools of their choice.
“While he did not use the word ‘voucherizing,’ [Romney’s] goal would be to have the money follow the child,” said Diament. “That would be a way to support nonpublic schools.”
Josh Pruzansky, the OU’s NJ director of public policy and political affairs, also spoke about the “tuition crisis” that many middle-class day school families are undergoing and urged attendance at a Nov. 13 Trenton rally spearheaded by the OU in conjunction with the Catholic Conference and other groups.
“We hope to have 1,800 people there,” he said. “We are reaching out to everyone,” including, he said, the Conservative Solomon Schechter day school community.
Diament pointed out that the dynamics of religion and politics has often made for unusual political alliances in which the Orthodox at times find more commonality with traditional Catholics and evangelical Protestants than with other Jews, who, for their part, often find themselves more in alignment with liberal Catholics and Protestants.
He cited the recent Obama administration health care mandates, which require employers to expand health care services for women, including providing contraceptive coverage.
After the Catholic Church raised objections because birth control is against Catholic religious doctrine, the administration revised the requirement to include exemptions for houses of worship. However, Diament said, other religious entities such as schools, hospitals, and charities, were not exempted, prompting some Catholic dioceses to take legal action.
“The OU has basically sided with the Catholic Church on this, not because we share their view on contraception, but because we have very serious concerns about the religious freedom issue,” said Diament. He noted that “picking and choosing which religious institutions get exemptions is disingenuous.”
While he understood the requirement wasn’t designed to infringe on religious rights, Diament said, “This is a very important issue in our country and I hope it will lead to constructive discussions” on freedom of religion.