Elections

Director of NJ Agudah offices to run for state assembly seat

Rabbi Avi Schnall will run as a Democrat in the heavily-Republican 30th district that includes Lakewood

Schnall in interview with Mishpacha. Credit YouTube screenshot

Sep 18, 2023 1:10 PM

Updated: 

Rabbi Avi Schnall, the director of Agudath Israel’s New Jersey offices, will run for a state assembly seat in the state’s 30th legislative district as one of two Democratic nominees. The heavily-Republican 30th district contains Lakewood Township, a city of roughly 135,000 people, two-thirds of whom are Orthodox Jews, with a large proportion being Haredi. 

In New Jersey, each district has two Assembly seats, and both members of a district are elected on a single ballot, with seats going to the two candidates with the most votes, even if they belong to different parties. Incumbents Sean Kean and Edward Thomson, both Republicans, defeated their Democratic challengers by over 20 points in 2021, but Schnall is expected to make a strong push to flip one of the seats. If Schnall wins, experts believe he would be the first Haredi person to serve in the state’s legislature.

Schnall’s candidacy comes at a time when much of the Orthodox world has turned to the Republican party, according to Mark Trencher, founder of Nishma Research, a firm that collects data on trends in the Orthodox community, and surveyed 1145 Haredim.

“The Yeshivish are not 100% Republican, but they are in the range of 85-to-90%,” Trencher said. Yeshivish is a term that refers to certain Haredi Jews; often interchangeable with Litvish, it largely encompasses the Haredi Jewish community that is not Hasidic.

Schnall himself had been registered as a Republican previously, according to the New Jersey Globe.

Despite this trend, Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran of political campaigns who runs a strategic communications firm, said he isn’t surprised that Schnall is running as a Democrat, given the need for government services in a relatively-low-income portion of the Jewish community.

“Haredi communities are much more in need of services than other communities are,” Sheinkopf told Shtetl. “Therefore, Haredi voters tend to respond to rabbinical calls, and rabbinical calls are often to support those in power, to ensure that services are delivered.”

According to Sheinkopf, this desire for government services could serve as motivation for Haredi politicians to run as Democrats in a blue state like New Jersey.

“The Senate is controlled by the Democrats, the Assembly is controlled by the Democrats, the governor's office is controlled by the Democrats – if you want to get what you need, you need to be a Democrat,” Sheinkopf said.

Trencher said that roughly half of Haredi voters seek guidance on how to vote. Because of this, he expects Schnall to be competitive regardless of party affiliation.

“I think, in today’s world, one of the things that the Orthodox Jewish community has learned in recent years is the importance of voting,” Trencher said. “So I would expect an Orthodox, yeshivish candidate to do well, and I don’t even know that party affiliation would have much of an effect, especially since the Republican candidates are not in that same demographic group.”

Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, said that he has not seen records of a Haredi person running for state assembly before. While not Haredi, current 36th district representative Gary Schaer is Orthodox. Saladin Ambar, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, said that Schnall’s run fits in with a national trend of religious leaders being accepted into the political sphere, citing Reverend Raphael Warnock’s recent election to the United States Senate in Georgia.

“There’s clearly an increasing and broad acceptance of religious individuals … running for office,” Ambar said. “But in terms of religious leaders, obviously we’re talking about fewer in number, but [it’s] not entirely uncommon, particularly in the Black church.”

Schnall’s place on the ticket had initially been held by former Lakewood mayor Marta Harrison, who removed herself from the race in late August, according to Politico, which also reported that a last-minute meeting of local party officials to pick a replacement resulted in Schnall’s nomination. The election will take place on November 7.

Daniel Schrager is a recent graduate of Rice University where he studied religions. He lives in Los Angeles, where he was born and raised.