‘We are very pleased to have Rabbi Rand Paul here,” the senator’s host, Richard Roberts, said as two dozen religious Jews sat down to lunch in Roberts’s home in Lakewood, N.J.
“Senator, we have 6,500 men studying here,” Roberts continued, referring to Lakewood’s Beth Midrash Govoha, one of the largest rabbinical schools in the world. “Can you get me one or two Jews from Kentucky learning here?”
It was a sunny day in mid June and Paul had come to Lakewood, one of the nation’s hubs of Orthodox Judaism, direct from Kentucky before returning to Washington, D.C. In the Orthodox community, Roberts, who last August sold his pharmaceutical company for $800 million, is a good friend to have. “If [Paul] has Dr. Roberts backing him, that is a great imprimatur for everybody in the community here,” Rabbi Zisha Novoseller tells me. “These are movers and shakers in the audience here and he is looking for us to spread the gospel.”
Roberts is not subtle. He introduces the senator to a class of seventh-grade girls who materialize at the luncheon in their school uniforms: “This is Senator Rand Paul, guys, who may be president.”
Paul is laying the groundwork for a 2016 presidential bid, and his outreach to voters outside the Republican mainstream is a key part of the effort. It’s especially necessary for Paul. Take this week’s revelation, reported in the Washington Free Beacon, that a Paul aide was, until last year, a radio talk-show host, known as “the Southern Avenger,” who sported a stars-and-bars mask, defended Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth, and made controversial remarks about African Americans and Mexican Americans. Add that to Paul’s controversial 2010 remark that the 1964 Civil Rights Act shouldn’t apply to private businesses, and the Kentucky senator certainly faces an uphill climb.
Paul is not the first Republican to court Orthodox Jews, who are more politically conservative than their less observant, overwhelmingly Democratic coreligionists. GOP candidates from George W. Bush to Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have done so; even the National Rifle Association is gearing up, with the 2014 midterm election in sight, to lead a group to Israel to tour ancient battlefields and present-day weapons manufacturers. But with this group, Paul begins with another disadvantage: his father. His father Ron Paul, a former Texas congressman and three-time presidential candidate, is widely perceived as being anti-Israel. For the younger Paul, that has been a stumbling block. “The concern in the Jewish community is about his support for Israel,” says Alan Berger, a Manhattan gynecologist who attended the Roberts lunch. “That’s why he’s making these visits.”
But the visit is also part of Paul’s larger strategy to woo minorities into the GOP tent — and his own — with earnest, personal outreach.
Starting at last summer’s Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., Paul has extended his hand to the Orthodox community, meeting with a group of Jewish leaders at the convention and making his first trip to Israel this past January. He has delivered speeches at the historically black institutions Howard University and Simmons College and to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.