When Ted Cruz headlined a recent fundraising luncheon in New York, the Baptist senator was presented with a gift: a menorah.
“It was very heartfelt,” Mica Mosbacher, a Cruz supporter who was there, said of the feelings on both sides. “He strikes a chord with the Jewish community.”
Cruz, the son of a pastor, has spent several years aggressively courting the support of Jewish voters, particularly those who are Orthodox. Touting his conservative views on Israel, his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and his adherence to traditional values, Cruz has found a conservative niche in the Orthodox community in a Jewish faith that leans Democratic overall.
On Monday, the Texas senator addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which also hosted speeches by his rivals for the GOP presidential nomination, Donald Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Cruz said America must stand with Israel, compared the Iran nuclear deal to the 1938 Munich agreement with Nazi Germany, told the story of Purim and uttered a few words in Hebrew.
“We need a president who will be a champion for America and we need a president who will be a champion for Israel,” he said.
Last year, Cruz spoke at a dinner given by a Jewish organization in New York, attended a Passover gathering at a high-end California resort and met with Orthodox leaders in Brooklyn. He also has had numerous private meetings and fundraisers with Jewish voters in New York, South Florida and Los Angeles.
“He’s been reaching out to folks, I would say, pretty consistently, certainly once he entered the Senate,” said Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy at the Orthodox Union. “Senator Cruz has been very outspoken and aggressive and proactive in engaging on issues including Israeli security.”
Orthodox Jews make up about 10 percent of the U.S. Jewish population, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey. Fifty-seven percent of Orthodox Jews identified as Republicans or leaned toward the party and “more closely resemble white evangelical Protestants than they resemble other U.S. Jews,” the survey said.
Diament said many Orthodox Jews are upset with President Obama’s stance on Israel and the nuclear deal — views that Cruz consistently lambastes on the campaign trail.
“Senator Cruz is certainly a contrast to that,” Diament said.
Cruz has vowed to “rip to shreds” the “catastrophic” Iranian deal, and he headlined a Capitol Hill rally against it co-sponsored by the Zionist Organization of America. He repeatedly says that Israel will have no greater ally than him, and he advocates moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“Some folks have asked, ‘Why has a Cuban Texan Southern Baptist become one of the leading defenders of Israel in the United States Senate?’ These issues for me are not abstract and academic — they’re real and personal,” Cruz said last year in New York at the Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala, which he attended with Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.
“This is a room of Maccabees,” Cruz said. “This is a room of fighters.”
Cruz was invited to the New York event by Shmuley Boteach, a New Jersey rabbi and former congressional candidate who has arranged for Cruz to speak with a number of Jewish groups, including at a large Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles.
Many who attend the Los Angeles synagogue are of Iranian descent, Boteach said, and Cruz got a standing ovation for speaking out against the nuclear deal. Cruz also often tells Jewish audiences how his father was beaten and put in jail by agents of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, he said.
“He speaks about how his father was imprisoned, and he can really identify with the plight of the Jewish people and the righteousness that surrounds it,” Boteach said.
At a Shabbat dinner at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2012, Cruz was expected to stay for 45 minutes but stuck around for four hours talking about the Ten Commandments. Last year he visited Elie Wiesel in the Nobel laureate’s New York apartment. Cruz said he was inspired by Wiesel’s life, telling the Holocaust survivor about his father.
“This is completely his comfort zone,” said Jeff Ballabon, a Republican strategist who is Orthodox and attended the Shabbat dinner with Cruz.
Cruz has been steeped in Judaism since he was a child, when he attended a Houston elementary school founded by Jewish doctors.
“Roughly half the school was Jewish, which led me to believe until I was ten that half the world was Jewish,” Cruz wrote in his book, “A Time for Truth.” “Every year we’d play with dreidels, enjoy latkes, and celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas side by side, and think nothing of it.”
Cruz has held Hanukkah celebrations for his staff; his deputy chief of staff, Nick Muzin, is his primary liaison to the Orthodox community. In September, Muzin tweeted a photo of a rabbi blowing a shofar as Cruz watched. All were attending a fundraiser at the Bal Harbor, Fla., home of the Falic family, large donors to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Diament and others said many in the Orthodox community learned of Cruz after he was booed offstage while speaking in 2014 at a dinner for In Defense of Christians, which raises awareness about persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Cruz said at the dinner that Christians have no greater ally than Israel, and the crowd started to express its displeasure.
“If you will not stand with Israel, then I will not stand with you. Thank you, and God bless you,” Cruz said as he walked offstage.
“That went pretty viral around the community in terms of his standing with Israel and the Jewish people,” Diament said.
Cruz traveled in 2014 to Israel, where he met with Netanyahu and other elected officials and, during a speech to the Knesset, blamed Palestinians for the breakdown of peace talks. In December he chaired a Senate hearing on Palestinian and Iranian terrorism that led the Palestine Liberation Organization to issue a rare and pointed statement criticizing Cruz for not including Palestinian viewpoints.
On the campaign trail, Cruz tells crowds that Jewish voters are among those coalescing behind his campaign. Cruz and former candidate Marco Rubio both aggressively raised money among Orthodox donors, and many are expecting those who gave to Rubio to shift to Cruz now that the senator from Florida has left the race.
Andrew Bronner, 18, a student who is Orthodox, went to see Cruz at a rally in Miami ier this month. Bronner said he likes that Cruz is not afraid to fight people in Washington — and that he always supports Israel.
“He’s very pro-Israel,” Bronner said. “As a Jew, it’s my homeland.”
David Weigel contributed to this report.