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Rabbi turned lawyer seeks to unseat Chris Smith
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Rabbi turned lawyer seeks to unseat Chris Smith

Howard Kleinhendler, third from left, chats informally with voters in the Fourth Congressional District. Photo by Jason O’Grady
Howard Kleinhendler, third from left, chats informally with voters in the Fourth Congressional District. Photo by Jason O’Grady

An ordained Orthodox rabbi and veteran litigator at a New York law firm is making his first bid for elective office by challenging Rep. Chris Smith (R-Dist. 4).

Howard Kleinhendler views his newcomer status as “an advantage. I am in nobody’s pocket. I don’t owe anybody any favors. I bring a fresh perspective,” he told NJ Jewish News in a Sept. 14 telephone interview.

Smith has represented Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth, and Ocean counties since 1980, and many pundits are predicting a strong tide of Republican support in November.

Nevertheless, Kleinhendler, a Democrat, is optimistic about the race.

“Although a Republican has been in the seat for 30 years, about 60 percent of the voters are registered independents, so I think it is a swing district,” he said. “It is a matter of getting the message out and trying to convince people that I can do something for them.”

Kleinhendler said he believes Smith has spent too much time concentrating on foreign affairs while neglecting his constituents’ needs.

“There is no doubt that his record on human rights is good and he put forward a lot of bills to stop female trafficking in Africa and a lot of other issues important in that part of the world,” said Kleinhendler.

“But today, the question is: Is that what we really want our congressman to be doing when we have 9.6 percent unemployment and our property taxes are shooting through the roof and people are losing their homes?”

Kleinhendler said he is also troubled by Smith’s opposition to abortion rights.

“I characterize myself as ‘pro-life,’” he said, turning the usual term for an abortion opponent on its ear. “I believe a woman has a right to an abortion when her physical, mental, or emotional health is at risk. If there is a real problem with a pregnancy, she has the right to abort it.”

Rather than respond directly to Kleinhendler’s charges, Smith e-mailed NJJN a 2,500-word campaign statement entitled “Why I Am Seeking Reelection” (see sidebar).

On another reproductive issue, Kleinhendler describes Smith as “totally off-the-charts in trying to criminalize birth control, so much so that even in his human rights work he has opposed HIV/AIDS programs in Africa because they include distribution of condoms. That is a terrible mistake.”

Kleinhendler’s charge is based on Smith’s support of bills like the “Right to Life Act” of 2007, which would have extended the definition of “human being” to include the egg at the moment of fertilization. Birth control pills can prevent fertilized eggs from implanting into the wall of the uterus.

Kleinhendler said “there is no conflict at all” between his own views on birth control and abortion rights and Halacha, or rabbinic laws that govern his Orthodox Jewish practice.

“From my rabbinical training and rabbis I have spoken with, there are a lot of forms of birth control that are even encouraged, including the pill and the morning-after pill,” he said. “I don’t think women are baby factories. I don’t think we impose upon people to have children if they are not emotionally or financially ready.”

‘It is Israeli land’

Kleinhendler was born in Brooklyn but spent most of his childhood years in Forest Hills, Queens. At 24, he moved to Lakewood to attend a yeshiva. For five years he studied with and was ordained there by Rabbi Yitzchak Abadi.

“I started life wanting to be a rabbi, but when I finished studying I was married with two kids and no money. My parents said, ‘Why don’t you go to law school?’”

He enrolled at Temple University Law School, and interned in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office.

He joined the Kaye Scholer law firm in Manhattan, and was later partner at Wachtel and Masyr, where clients have included victims of Bernard Madoff’s investment scams.

He opposes gay marriage but supports civil unions, the right of same-sex couples to adopt children, and permitting gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. “I don’t think anybody should have to live a lie,” he said.

He calls the war in Iraq “a mistake,” and doubts the U.S. mission in Afghanistan can succeed.

Kleinhendler is skeptical of the current Mideast peace talks and said he is an opponent of a two-state solution. And, he told NJJN, “I am opposed to any type of concession until the Palestinians live up to the deals they’ve made. I don’t believe they want to deal.”

He supports Israeli settlements on the West Bank “100 percent. I have no problem with them whatsoever. It is Israeli land. The Arabs lost it fair and square in wars that they started.”

He describes Smith as a “traditional supporter of Israel, except for the last couple of appropriations votes. He is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, where he voted against appropriation to Israel. He is a devout Reagan Republican who doesn’t believe in spending any money.”

Smith declared in an e-mail that he has been “a consistent supporter” of Israel’s security and “consistently advocated and voted in favor of American aid to Israel,” except when such legislation was tied to “government subsidies for abortions.”

The president of NORPAC, a pro-Israel political action committee, disagrees sharply with Kleinhendler’s assessment of Smith.

“Chris Smith is one of the most staunch defenders of Israel in Congress,” said Ben Chouake. “He has been fighting for years against anti-Semitism. He is one of the top five percent of people in Congress who are good on issues related to the Jewish community.”

Kelinhendler backs President Obama in seeking elimination of tax cuts for those with higher incomes.

“There will be less money coming in to the federal government” if the cuts are allowed to continue, he said. “Where are local governments in New Jersey going to get the money to pay for trash removal and public schools? Guess what? They are going to take the money right out of homeowners’ pockets, and our property taxes, which have doubled in the last 10 years and are going to double again.

“That is the fallacy of the Republican promise.”

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