Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Aloha Jewish Style
Faith only part
of Lingle picture
Judaism flourishes in sun
By Matt Sedensky
She makes time for her scheduler, her Cabinet and her closest advisers. But every Monday morning, Gov. Linda Lingle sits down to a meeting unlike any other during the week.
It's with her rabbi.
Lingle's gubernatorial victory last November made her a pioneer in many ways. She is the first Republican to govern Hawaii in 40 years, the first woman ever. And she's the first Jewish governor to lead the islands, only the second female Jewish governor in U.S. history. The first, Madeleine Kunin, was Vermont's governor from 1985 to 1991.
Lingle is hesitant to be labeled only by her religion, but she is quick to say her faith helps define her. Judaism is a facet of Lingle's identity that she said shapes her leadership perhaps more than being a woman or a Republican.
"Anyone who was raised in a Jewish family, I think, would feel the same way," Lingle said.
Lingle's religion was never an issue during her campaign, and it seldom garners any attention now. At her inauguration a rabbi gave an invocation, but so did a number of Christian leaders.
Lingle attended a public menorah lighting during Hanukkah and took part last month in a Passover Seder at the governor's mansion. On Fridays a rabbi arrives at Lingle's office with fresh-baked challah bread for Shabbat. And in the entryway to the governor's home, a mezuza has been affixed in the doorway.
"She handles it the way Linda Lingle handles most things," said Neil Milner, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii. "She doesn't make a big thing out of it; she doesn't wear it on her sleeve."
It's a similar public approach to that of the nation's only other sitting Jewish governor, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.
Fewer than 20 Jews have been elected their state's chief executive since David Emanuel won Georgia's race in 1801. Some, like Idaho's Moses Alexander -- who helped establish Idaho's first synagogue after taking office in 1915 -- have particularly bolstered their faith's community.
Lingle has no similar goal for Hawaii's Jews, who make up fewer than 1 percent of the state's residents. She said raising the profile of her faith is "not something conscious that I'd like to set out to do."
Lingle grew up in St. Louis, where she attended services and Sunday school, saving her dimes to plant trees in Israel. Her family later moved to California, and after college Lingle moved to Hawaii.
Lingle narrowly lost a gubernatorial bid in 1998, but when she ran again four years later, backed by the biggest campaign fund in state history, she emerged a winner.
Her victory ended four decades of almost one-party rule in Hawaii by the Democrats, who governed over a slow economy, declining state tax revenue, weakened union political clout and a string of corruption scandals.
Lingle promised to improve public education and restore trust in government. And while she probably could have won without the extra help, she also gained the backing of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as well as Jews in California, New York and Florida. Even the Jerusalem Post featured her in a story.
"I think she sets the example for so many groups that are underrepresented," said Laura Stein, a lawyer who supported Lingle's candidacy. "She's like three for one."
Even Jews who find themselves at odds with the governor's political views say they take some pride in Lingle's rise.
"It demonstrates that Hawaii will continue its tradition of tolerance and inclusiveness," said Democratic state Rep. Brian Schatz. "From that perspective, I think we all were proud."
Isle Jews find faith
flourishes in sun
By Matt Sedensky
On a stop at a North Shore gas station last week, Rabbi Yitzchok Krasnjansky got an unusual request from the attendant.
"The guy asked me if he could take a picture," Krasnjansky said. "He asked me how does the yarmulke stay on my head."
The rabbi obliged. He understands how he might seem like an oddity worth photographing in a state where an estimated 10,000 Jews are peppered among a population of 1.2 million.
On islands where many residents don't even know what "being Jewish" means, the high-profile election of Linda Lingle last fall as the state's first Jewish governor has Hawaii Jews getting more attention.
"I think people are becoming more aware now," said David Bernstein, a 42-year-old Kaneohe man who attended a Passover Seder at Washington Place in April. "I think it's a chance to educate people."
"I've seen some interest," said state Rep. Mark Moses (R, Makakilo-Kapolei), who is Jewish. "I would hope that at least people would take some interest in Judaism and realize, hey, if they agree with the governor on a lot of things and this is her faith, at least take a look at her faith."
When Lingle moved to Molokai in 1976, "people there had never met a Jewish person before," she said. "I find people, more than anything, just curious."
Many Jews find Hawaii a place free from many of the stereotypes and biases sometimes applied to members of their faith elsewhere.
It's a place where a Roman Catholic priest paired Hebrew with Hawaiian at Lingle's inauguration to greet the crowd with "shaloha." It's a place where surfboard-themed yarmulkes and colorful aloha shirts don't clash, and bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs are held outside under the palms. It's a place where a local paper's food section featured a Passover recipe for "Gefilte Fish Goes Hawaiian" with Pacific-fresh mahimahi.
While Lingle was mayor of Maui and during her gubernatorial run, she did receive some anti-Semitic notes and phone calls, but they were minimal and some suspect they came from outside the islands.
Many island Jews say they are free from such bigotry here, in a state where no one ethnic group represents a majority and cultures meld seemingly with ease.
"Hawaii has definitely been good for the Jewish people," said Krasnjansky. "There's no anti-Semitism here."
Being thousands of miles from a large Jewish community is something, perhaps surprisingly, that many Hawaii Jews say enhances their spiritual life.
"I think here, Jewish people will tell you you feel, actually, more Jewish here," said Lingle.
Brad Sherman, who moved to Maui two years ago from Long Island, N.Y., agreed. "It's kind of the reverse of what I expected here," he said. "It made me think more about what it means to have this identity."
Still, moving to Hawaii can be jarring for a Jew accustomed to kosher delis around the corner and darkened storefronts on the High Holy Days.
"It's very accepting but it's very different out here. Out here, you're more of an oddity," said Army Maj. Jeff Drexler, 45, who moved to Hawaii from Riverside, Calif., three years ago. "I'm still looking for a good bagel."