S.F. native a driving force in gaining Jewish votes for Obama

Thursday, November 29, 2012 | by phil jacobs

A moment of silence: That’s what Jews worldwide were demanding at last summer’s London Olympics in memory of the 11 Israeli Olympians killed by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The Obama White House wasted little time releasing a statement supporting the gesture.

But Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential challenger and director of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, said virtually nothing. For that he was openly criticized by Barbara Berger, a Maine resident and sister of the late David Berger, one of the Munich 11.

Soon after, a detailed research document noting Berger’s criticism of Romney was put together and distributed from the top-floor office of the Washington public relations firm Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications. It was one of the first actions of the Jewish Media Hub, a nonprofit loosely affiliated with the National Jewish Democratic Council that ultimately would send out thousands of such documents, press releases, op-eds and social network sites directed at undecided Jewish voters.

The Hub was launched in July when Bay Area native Aaron Keyak, 27, a San Francisco native who attended Brandeis Hillel Day School and graduated from International High School in 2003, was hired as director. The goal, he explained, was to “talk to Jews where they live.”

“We were basically a rapid response media war room,” said Keyak, who came to the Hub after serving on the staff of former New Jersey Rep. Steve Rothman. “We were responding at times minute by minute to events of the day. We had all the data and research at our fingertips. If there was an issue on Romney and Iran, we were able to move faster and in a smarter way than anyone else doing media outreach.”

Keyak, who also previously worked for the NJDC, had been talking with the firm’s Steve Rabinowitz for a while about the project. Both knew the GOP was going to come after the Jewish vote with big money. Rabinowitz said he felt the Obama campaign was taking the challenge seriously, hiring Ira Forman a year and a half before the election as a connection to the Jewish community. But he and his partner Matt Dorf thought there was a need for more.

That something resulted in the hiring of Keyak to manage more than 10 staffers.

The Hub worked under the radar, generating information. A battle was going on with the Republicans for the undecided Jewish vote, and getting a message to those voters was the priority. The Hub drove favorable press  concerning the president’s re-election bid and, conversely, unfavorable information regarding Romney. Staffers walked a fine line: They could send out op-eds and press memos pointing out positive things about Obama and highlighting Romney’s “negative” points, but to remain a nonprofit, the group couldn’t urge that a voter choose one candidate over another.

Rabinowitz raised half a million dollars to fund the effort — chump change against the tens of millions of dollars going for the same vote provided by Sheldon Adelson and other major super PAC donors.

“We were … proactive,” said Keyak, “because we had a specialty area. We were churning out all of these memos and we were in constant contact with reporters.”

The Hub worked with reporters covering the Jewish vote in newspapers such as the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Jerusalem Post. It also placed articles or op-eds in Jewish newspapers reporting on battleground communities and created websites such as Israelquiz.org comparing the Israel records of presidents Bush, Reagan and Obama with the record of Romney. It created a video of Sderot residents praising the president on the Iron Dome antimissile system. (Sderot is a development town on Israel’s border with Gaza that has been heavily targeted by Hamas rockets.)

Keyak said the Hub was “fluent” on issues such as the president’s support for Israel. But he knew Jewish voters also hold social issues near and dear.

“We knew that 90 percent of Jews are pro-choice,” he said. “We knew that 80 percent of Jews were in favor of same-sex marriage, so it wasn’t difficult to paint Romney as out of step with the Jewish voters. But we had to get that message out. We were more than happy to engage in issues of Israel and Iran, but the biggest differences between the two were social issues. As the Republicans worked to reach out to its base, it only pushed away Jewish voters in even greater numbers.”

Two weeks before Election Day, the Hub went into overdrive. Staffers drafted and/or placed more than 15 op-eds, including pieces by former New York Mayor Ed Koch, Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, former U.N. ambassador Nancy Soderberg, Stuart Milk, the nephew of the late civil rights leader Harvey Milk, the last three presidents of JCPA, an Israeli and a Palestinian writing on Romney and Middle East peace, NJDC leader David Harris, former Rep. Mel Levine, the three Rabbis for Obama co-chairs, and attorney and author Alan Dershowitz. That was in just two weeks.

“They cranked out content,” Rabinowitz said. “They talked to reporters all day long. We had rapid response, and we’d also put out attacks. We’d put out stuff about Romney and [vice presidential candidate Paul] Ryan. NJDC got Barbra Streisand to do a video. The Hub wrote the script and helped distribute it to the battleground states.”

After President Obama’s victory on Nov. 6, and exit polls showed nearly 70 percent of Jewish voters cast their ballots for him, the accolades began to come in.

Forman, the Jewish outreach director for Obama’s re-election staff, said the Hub “was amazing.” Another Obama staffer, who requested anonymity, said, “The campaign had a very good communications operation. But on any campaign, you never have enough resources.

“We would have been at a disadvantage without these guys. The Hub was just brilliant.”