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Rabbi on the Roof: N.J. Candidate Gets Taste of Washington

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 2, 2008

Occasionally, a situation presents itself in which the straighter it's told, the more it sounds like a joke -- so you might as well just roll with it.

A blind rabbi walks onto a roof and announces he's running for Congress.

The blind rabbi is Democrat Dennis Shulman. The district is New Jersey's 5th, a solidly Republican region in the northern part of the state that has been represented by conservative Scott Garrett since 2002.

The roof, located approximately 4 1/2 hours from any of the counties in play, belongs to Tac Tacelosky, a Dupont Circle Web designer. He heard about Shulman, who is 58, through a mass e-mail from the National Jewish Democratic Council and wanted to get involved.

Around the same time, construction was being finished on his sprawling R Street rooftop deck.

Low-budget fundraiser? he e-mailed the campaign.

Next week? they wrote back.

Tacelosky went to Costco. He had workmen come install the rest of the railing. "Because," he explains, "you don't really want to have a missing part of your deck when a blind person is coming to speak there."

And now, on the last Thursday of July, Tacelosky and about 60 of his friends from various circles (there's a strong showing from Bike & Brunch, a Jewish cycling group), congregate on the roof and eat kosher-style food and pay $36 a person to cluster around a candidate for whom none of them will ever vote. (The donation amount? Twice times 18, a number that Jews associate with good luck.)

"He has kind of a cult following among Jews in America," says guest Matt Dorf, who does Jewish outreach for the Democratic National Committee. "It's not every day a rabbi runs for Congress."

Never, according to Shulman's campaign. And the last blind congressman left office almost 70 years ago.

Shulman is an anomaly, one whose personal circumstances draw more attention than his political stances (for abortion rights, for speedy troop withdrawal). He doesn't mind. "It's a great segue," he says cheerfully.

The subject line for the NJDC e-mail was "A blind rabbi walks into a bar." When a campaign staffer tells Shulman this, he bursts into delighted giggles. He speaks with a lisp. He is stocky, full-bearded and approachable, the later trait an excellent one for a political candidate or a rabbi, which he became in 2003.

Before that, he was a clinical psychologist, and long before that, a boy growing up in Massachusetts who lost his sight as a teen through a degenerative nerve disorder. He lives in the town of Demarest with his wife, Pam, an obstetrician. They have two grown daughters.

Talking to fans on Tacelosky's freshly varnished roof deck, he is a quick-change artist:

The psychologist:"Are you two boyfriend girlfriend, or just good friends?"

The parent: How long has your son been walking? . . . Since 10 months? Oh, I'm sorry to hear that."

The rabbi:"It's like this bar mitzvah I did where there was gefilte fish sushi." (He's an associate rabbi at Chavurah Beth Shalom in Alpine.) And later: "This deck would be a great place for a sukkah ," the temporary structure built for the harvest festival of Sukkot.

Tacelosky likes the sukkah idea. He is not technically Jewish yet. He is planning on converting later this month.

He introduces his friend, Virginia Lamprecht. She's not Jewish, either. "Prior to being involved in the Jewish crowd, I was involved in the magic crowd," Tacelosky explains, which is how he knows Lamprecht.

Jews and gentiles and magicians alike, all on this rooftop, all intrigued by the blind rabbi from New Jersey, the one who was inspired to run for Congress by a quote from theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel: "To speak about God and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous."

In the primaries he opposed a man with the last name Bacon.

"I'm really intrigued by his evolution as a professional," from psychologist to rabbi to politico, says Jessica Rosenblum, a publicist.

Shulman's background works "as a character witness," says grad student Paul Adler. It assures Adler that Shulman wouldn't play traditional politics.

That's really the underlying message tonight, running below the Izze sparkling juice drinks and falafel balls with mustard: Traditional politics have become such an odious thought this campaign cycle that some people have more faith in psychologist-rabbis with no political experience than incumbent congressmen. Or, as www.shulmanforcongress.com puts it, "It may very well take a blind man to show Congress the light."

Ba-dum-bum.

It's a tough road ahead, but not a hopeless one: Congressional Quarterly changed the district's classification from "safe Republican to Republican favored." In the last quarter, Shulman and Garrett raised nearly the same amount of money: $199,259 for Shulman, $199,926 for Garrett.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has labeled the 5th District as one of 15 "emerging races," a term used for candidates who have "generated excitement" in their home districts. Continued excitement generation could lead to Shulman becoming a "red to blue" candidate, meaning the DCCC would provide him with strategic support and a fundraising boost.

And then there's the moral support from New York Gov. David Paterson, who is also visually impaired. Recently Shulman shared something with him that a friend had observed. "I told [Paterson], 'Blindness is the new gay!' " The governor thought that was funny.

The Garrett campaign, however, remains unimpressed. "The profile pieces that our opponent is getting in national media may be exciting for him," says campaign adviser Matthew Barnes, "but the fact of the matter is, people care about the issues." And furthermore, he adds, "we have twice the cash on hand than our opponent, and at this stage that doesn't bode well."

But on Thursday night on the deck, the blind rabbi is unfazed, laughing with his new D.C. contingent, and convincing them that more "citizen legislators," as he calls himself, are just what the country needs.

Is it the rabbi aspect of your citizen credentials that people find the most comforting? a reporter asks.

Actually, it's more the shrink angle: "I get a lot of 'I don't know if your couch is going to be big enough for all of Congress.' "

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