Lee Zeldin's Jewish Patriotism

Lee Zeldin's Jewish Patriotism
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Judaism in America is declining, but the lone Jewish Republican in the House of Representatives isn't worried.

"There are many different ways to practice Judaism, and for some it involves going to services every weekend, observing more holidays than maybe their Jewish neighbor a few streets down," Congressman Lee Zeldin recently told RealClearReligion from his Washington, D.C., office. "For some people, they might do a Passover Seder once a year, maybe they'll go to Rosh Hashanah services once a year."

A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center shows a move toward Jewish identity as ethnicity, culture, and ancestry rather than religious affiliation. Similarly, there's a shift from Orthodox Judaism to the religion's more liberal denominations.

Zeldin said defining what it means to be a Jew in America today is "subjective for the individual Jew" -- as it is for members of any religion.

"There's certainly a heavy influence based on what kind of a Jew you are -- if you are identifying yourself as Reform or Conservative or Orthodox," he said. "I think for different people they observe their assimilation to America differently -- their patriotism."

The freshman congressman said he has observed Jewish practice across the denominational spectrum throughout his years -- celebrating his Bar Mitzvah in a Reform temple, attending a Friday night service in a Conservative temple, going to an Orthodox wedding, and visiting the Modern Orthodox Temple in his district.

"You can have a Reform Jew who's highly patriotic and serving in the military or law enforcement, getting very involved in their community and having a lot of love of country, and you may meet a Reformed Jewish American who maybe isn't as much as into politics and government and service the same way the first person was," Zeldin said.

For Zeldin, patriotism might be on par with religious practice. The Congressman spent four years on active duty with the U.S. Army, deploying to Iraq in 2006 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He continues to serve in the Army Reserves.

"I truly believe that when you're reflecting on life -- years, decades from now -- and you're trying to define whether or not you've lived a successful life, that one of the best measures of success -- or maybe the best measure of success -- is whether or not you left the world better than you found it," said a man whose service is diverse and practical.

Zeldin, elected in November 2014 to represent New York's First Congressional District, spent two terms in the New York State Senate before he was sent to Washington. Recalling his college days, he noted his involvement in the local Hillel campus chapter, offering basic necessities to the needy in the area.

"Some of the experience has been very deep and religious -- going back really with lessons that have been learned over the course of thousands of years -- and others just every day encounters to try to improve my immediate surroundings to make the world a better place," Zeldin said, summing up the intersection of religion and politics in his life.

Zeldin attended Hebrew school at a young age and learned about the Israeli region, fitting him with the desire to further study Middle Eastern history in grade school and college.

"I've always been very intrigued by the manner in which human nature has presented itself and defined itself over the course of time in parts of the world," Zeldin said.

The Congressman will visit Israel this August, and his eight-year-old twin daughters will begin attending Hebrew school in September.

Zeldin's Jewish heritage also provided him with an "appreciation for an education of the Holocaust" and a definite pledge of "never again" -- a pledge strengthened by his ancestral connections to the atrocity.

"We must never forget the suffering, persecution and hatred that many different races and religions have endured throughout history," Zeldin commented. "Education, resolve and action are key ingredients to 'never forget' and to overcome related challenges whenever they are presented moving forward."

In his first six months on the national political scene, Zeldin has already established his unwavering support for Israel and spoken extensively about the nation's nuclear deal with Iran.

"As we inch closer to the June 30 deadline [for a nuclear deal], I want to reinforce that a bad deal is worse than no deal at all," Zeldin said in a June 2015 address on the House floor. "[Mr. President], it's time to strengthen your hand."

Zeldin -- a member of three House committees and seven subcommittees -- likens the nuclear negotiations to a game of poker.

"When sitting down with Iran, the President inherits 'pocket aces' every time he sits down at the table, because he is the president of the United States and that is American exceptionalism every hand," Zeldin told RealClearReligion. "When sitting down with Iran, we have to understand Iran sits down at the table with a 7-2 off suit, which is the worst hand that you can have at poker. And the President, almost as a negotiating tactic, starts off a negotiation by asking the person on the other side of the table if they want to trade hands."

The congressman's politics are informed by his religion perhaps just as much as by his military experience.

"Everyone has the ability to serve somehow. Some people are filled with excuses as to why they never do anything. Some people are filled with so many excuses that they'll claim they don't even have time to register to vote or vote," Zeldin said.

"Everyone has an ability to do something to contribute, and for me it's very easy to go to sleep at night knowing that I have my priorities in order."

Anna Dembowski is a 2015 National Journalism Center intern at RealClearReligion.

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