News & Community

Leap of Faith

“Yitzi” Schleifer is the youngest incoming city councilman and first Orthodox Jewish member in decades.

This isn’t a pizza place where people talk politics,” Isaac Schleifer jokes as he slides into a seat at Tov Pizza in Northwest Baltimore. “It’s a political clubhouse that sells pizza.”

Schleifer, who is just 27 and goes by “Yitzi,” becomes the 5th District’s new city councilman this month. Tov Pizza (“Baltimore’s Best Kosher Pizza”) is owned by his older cousin, Ron Rosenbluth, a former Democratic State Central Committee official. The busy Reisterstown Road pizza, sub, and knish joint has been around since 1984, but it feels even more retro with its checked Formica floor and gumball machines. And it’s here Schleifer and Rosenbluth gamed out maybe the most surprising primary victory in this watershed election year.

The target, at least initially, was 39-years-in-office city councilwoman Rikki Spector. A successful software entrepreneur, Schleifer had funded a poll that examined Spector’s vulnerability in the Democratic primary, but the data coming back wasn’t great. “I figured we had to convince about 800 registered Republicans and independents to switch party affiliation if we were going to win,” Schleifer says. Still, given the size of the politically conservative Orthodox community in the 5th District, Schleifer, an observant Jew, calculated it was worth a shot. (Spector is also Jewish, but less observant.)

Then, three months before the primary, the 80-year-old Spector unexpectedly declined to seek re-election. Instead, she tapped Betsy Gardner—City Council President Jack Young’s longtime 5th District aide and citywide Jewish liaison—to succeed her. Gardner also received Young’s backing, which brought along Democratic establishment and union endorsements. Schleifer’s basic math hadn’t changed.

Every election brings challenges, of course. Some more critical than others. Though of little consequence elsewhere in the city, the state legislature had moved this year’s primary back to avoid a conflict with Easter, which effectively pushed the date into the middle of Passover week. That meant Schleifer would not campaign the weekend before the election—and much of his Orthodox base would be out of town for the holiday.

“You know the saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a kid’? That’s me.”

One more curveball: The Baltimore Sun endorsed neither Gardner nor Schleifer, but a third candidate, Elizabeth Ryan Martinez, a Roland Park attorney in the city’s legal office. Undaunted, Schleifer, who’d chosen Oriole orange as his campaign color, continued to generate enthusiasm and raise money by playing off his youthful energy, business experience, deep Orthodox community and neighborhood ties. He knocked on doors across the district. He touted his focus on public safety, property taxes, and government accountability. And his platform didn’t waver when Spector left the race—he’d been campaigning against her for six months at that point—and Gardner jumped in.

In the end, Martinez garnered 1,260 votes—many that Spector believes would have gone to Gardner, if Martinez hadn’t received The Sun’s endorsement. Schleifer actually lost the primary day tally to Gardner, but he’d already found his 800 votes by then. Credit Schleifer’s team for its organization: His big absentee and early-voting turnout allowed him to hang on and win one of the closest of the 15 City Council races up for grabs.

“We never said it publicly,” Rosenbluth, 53, says, “but on the campaign, our theme going in was that line Reagan used—you know, ‘Are you better off than you were 40 years ago?’”

As unanticipated as Schleifer’s bold victory was in April (he faced no Republican opposition in the general election), the fact that he is the youngest incoming City Council member and Baltimore’s first Orthodox Jewish city councilman in decades, at least, points to an interesting demographic trend. Already the 14th largest Jewish community in the country, the number of Jewish households in the Greater Baltimore region has been steadily growing. In particular, the Jewish population in the Park Heights corridor, a traditional enclave of Orthodox Jews, grew by 25 percent between 1999 and 2010. And its relative density makes it especially notable. In the last comprehensive study—the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Survey—more than three in 10 Jews identified as Orthodox, a percentage that is triple the figure of the growing Orthodox affiliation in the Jewish community nationwide, according to the Pew Research Center.

These stats stand in contrast to the city—where population, at best, has leveled off after decades of decline. The Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Survey reports, for example, that the number of Jews living in Baltimore County fell by 5,900 between 1999 and 2010 but grew by 7,800 in Baltimore City. “I’ve heard people say that there are too many synagogues on Park Heights Avenue,” Schleifer says, “but they have been a stabilizing factor, along with Ner Israel Rabbinical College, the Jewish Community Center, community associations and nonprofits, and the senior living high-rises in Northwest Baltimore.”

On a late summer morning, Schleifer is driving past the house where he grew up in a working- and middle-class section of Falstaff, which sits just inside the city line below Pikesville. He has to stop and share a story. Or two. He’s married, the father of one, and soon, two. He’s also sharp, confident, and remarkably even-tempered for his age. Any age, really. But he admits he bristled, just ever so slightly, whenever it was implied during the campaign that being a young, successful Jewish businessman automatically meant that he came from money and was therefore out of touch with parts of his district. The 5th is one of the most diverse districts in the city—stretching from Howard Park to Pimlico and Park Heights to Mount Washington and Roland Park. It’s got a Muslim community and a Latino community. It has some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city, as well as some of the poorest. “I’m the youngest of five—I have four older sisters,” Schleifer says, gesturing toward the modest, brick duplex of his childhood. “There were seven of us in that house—three bedrooms and one bathroom. Everything I’ve gotten I have worked very hard for by building a business that, thank God, has been very successful.”

As he begins driving again, he talks about playing baseball and basketball with the mix of black, Jewish, and Latino kids up and down the street. “Once a year, the maintenance guy at the school [Falstaff Elementary/Middle] would go up on the roof and throw all the balls down,” Schleifer recalls with a smile. “We celebrated like it was the biggest day of the year. To us, it was.” It’s also on this block where his interests in community service and politics was first encouraged—Schleifer’s father, Barry, is a former Falstaff Improvement Association president.

After Schleifer turns past the school and continues on this mini-tour of his district, he notes the new sold-out Bancroft Village townhome development on Park Heights Avenue—with SUVs and bicycles parked in front of nearly every doorstep—and the synagogue next door. He also highlights the imminent closing of Northwestern High School. “There was a fight over the closing of the school, but we have to look at the property as an opportunity now,” Schleifer says. “It’s not often that that many acres of land become available—whether it’s for a park or recreation center or some other kind of redevelopment.”

Looping past Pimlico, the historic racetrack in the heart of the district, he says he’d like “to see 50 events a year, not one or two.” But he adds that the Pimlico community—not just elected leaders, business people, and city officials—need to have a seat at the table regarding the future of the venue, including signing off on the types of events that may get booked.

Later, he waves to a police officer standing on a corner and looks closely at another officer getting out of a car before again nodding hello. “If you’re a cop in this neighborhood and I don’t know you—it’s because you’re new here,” Schleifer says. “I know everybody in this neighborhood because I grew up here.

“My family has been here for 40-plus years,” Schleifer continues. “I was born at Sinai Hospital. You know the saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a kid?’ That’s me.”

Schleifer acknowledges that the primary campaign got heated at times in the 5th District, pitting neighborhood against neighborhood, including allegations of racism and anti-Semitism. He wants to make it clear that he doesn’t represent one group’s interest over another.

“I serve the entire 5th District. There are differences, but there are also issues that overlap. We are all in this together.”

“He’s in it for the right reason,” Johnson says. “He has big shoes to fill.”

Current Fallstaff Improvement Association president, Sandra Johnson, has known Schleifer almost his whole life and she describes him as a hard worker with a significant resume in community service. “He’s in it for the right reasons,” Johnson says. The list of community positions Schleifer has held include serving as the northwest community liaison for City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and vice president of his Cheswolde Neighborhood Association. Johnson cautions, however, that it will take him time to get a handle on the complex and wide-ranging issues facing his district. She adds that there’s lots of diversity within the African-American, Latino, and Jewish communities in the 5th District. But the biggest challenge for Schleifer, Johnson says, is that it will simply take time to establish lines of communication and trust with people and community leaders accustomed to dealing with Spector. “He has big shoes to fill,” Johnson says. “Rikki Spector developed the meaningful relationships she has over many years, and he will have to do the same. But he has the personality for it. He’s going to do fine.”

Spector and Schleifer reconciled their campaign differences after the primary. She showed up at his packed late-September fundraiser at the Royal Kosher Restaurant, as did Young, several current members of the City Council, and several likely new members, including Ryan Dorsey and Zeke Cohen, Democratic primary winners in the 3rd and 1st districts, respectively. Sen. Ben Cardin, state Del. Sandy Rosenberg, and local Jewish political power broker Howard Friedman, the former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and past leader of several Baltimore Jewish organizations, also turned out. Schleifer worked the room like a pro, keeping his address short while asking the gathered audience twice to applaud Spector’s dedicated service.

Spector says she doesn’t regret her decision to endorse Gardner. She also says she’ll do whatever she can to help smooth Schleifer’s transition. “Yitz believes he can do the job, and he really wants the job,” Spector says. “That’s how I felt. That’s important.”

To Friedman, who has hosted President Obama at his Northwest home, Schleifer’s fast rebuilding of bridges—and new bridge building—is a sign of political maturity. (Schleifer hustled to Camden Yards immediately after his fundraiser to catch up with some supporters who attended the ball game that night.) “There’s an old line in Washington—‘We have friends and soon-to-be friends,’” Friedman says. “That’s how effective politicians think and how he thinks.”

It goes without saying, Schleifer says, that his faith informs not just the way he lives his daily life, but his politics. At the City Council level, that translates into a concern for others and commitment to constituent service.

He also believes that the concept behind several independent efforts in the Orthodox community can be extrapolated into other neighborhoods. The Northwest Baltimore Citizens Patrol and Shomrim neighborhood watch group are examples. Chaverim, a volunteer group providing nonmedical roadside and home assistance, and Hatzalah, a privately funded, two-ambulance, nonprofit emergency medical service, are two others.

At the same time, Schleifer is expected to bring a conservative voice to the council in fiscal matters. Unlike most of the incoming councilmembers, he has not voiced support for the proposed $15 mandatory minimum wage. And, although it didn’t come before him, he also saw the record-breaking, tax-increment financing package awarded to Sagamore Development’s Port Covington project in a more favorable light than some of his freshmen colleagues.

“The top issues in my district are public safety and property taxes,” Schleifer says. “If you don’t feel secure in your home, taking care of that comes first. The Orthodox community doesn’t use them, but schools are obviously an important issue for the entire city. The other big issue is economic development. We need jobs in my district. We need good-paying jobs, too.” Last summer, Schleifer successfully advocated for expanding the city’s lab and fingerprinting capacity after a rash of break-ins in Northwest.

“There’s also no reason why every dollar the city government spends can’t be seen online,” Schleifer says. “With technology today, and the internet, that’s something that everyone of my generation expects.”

As far as doing his work and keeping the Sabbath in a 24/7 job, Schleifer says it is just one more small obstacle to overcome.“If there’s an event on a Saturday—I’m not going to be there. But I’ll have a staff person attend in my place,” Schleifer says. “I can only work six days a week. That means I’m going to have to work a lot harder on those six days.”