Iowa federation chief, among youngest in country, navigates politics of battleground state

David Adelman, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines, introducing Hillary Clinton before a speech at federation headquarters, Jan. 25, 2016. (Josh Tapper)

DES MOINES, Iowa (JTA) – Ten minutes into her speech at the Jewish Federation of Des Moines on Monday, Hillary Rodham Clinton had a coughing fit. She popped a lozenge, but that didn’t help.

After a few long seconds and still gasping for air, Clinton turned to federation president David Adelman, who had introduced the candidate and was sitting stage left, for help.

“David,” Clinton said in a hoarse whisper. “You talk.”

Adelman, all 6 feet and 4 inches of him, was at the podium almost instantly.

“We’re starting the All-in-One campaign,” he said, referring to the federation’s signature fundraising drive, the audience of 150 erupting in laughter and applause. “Pledge cards will be at the door after you leave.”

Adelman, at 34, one of the youngest federation presidents in the country, is getting used to pressure. As the eyes of the country narrow on Iowa, he finds himself navigating the sometimes-contentious intersection of national Jewish politics, community affairs and his own allegiances.

In addition to the federation gig, Adelman is the Iowa council chair for the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and works as a professional lobbyist in the state legislature.

Adelman said it was his atypical story that won over more seasoned Jewish community members when he was elected president last July. In addition to his relative youth, his wife, Liz, who he met while working on the Obama campaign in 2008, is a practicing Catholic.

“The older groups saw my ability to talk to different audiences and be able to shape a message that was compelling for all of the members of the Jewish community – not one certain demographic, not just the hardcore Democrats or the hardcore Republicans or the business leaders or the Orthodox community or the Reform community,” he said.

For Adelman, all has not been smooth sailing since he assumed the federation presidency in July. After helping propel Barack Obama to the presidency with a win in the Iowa caucuses in 2008, Adelman supported the federation’s decision late last year to publicly oppose the nuclear deal Obama pushed for with Iran.

“They were furious with me,” Adelman said of local Jewish Democrats. “People were dropping memberships and speaking forcefully about my role because I’m the chair of AIPAC in Iowa as well.”

Adelman said he eased tensions by meeting with his critics. Over the summer, he helped launch a speaker series that has brought Republican candidates Carly Fiorina and Rick Santorum and Democratic contenders Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and, most recently, Clinton to address the federation.

Roughly 3,000 Jews live in Des Moines – about half the Jewish population of the state. After shrinking from a peak of 8,600 in the early 1970s, the community has lately shown signs of stabilization, according to Mark Finkelstein, the federation’s director of community relations. Though the local federation has no precise figures, there are even signs the community is growing.

Bucking a national trend, the Conservative Tifereth Israel synagogue has seen its membership rolls expand by 7 percent since 2009. Another synagogue, Temple B’nai Jeshurun, is undergoing a $1 million renovation, and its rabbi, David Kaufman, says he has welcomed an influx of unaffiliated young couples and singles drawn to the congregation’s activism among new immigrants, including refugees from South Sudan.

In 2014, Drake University in Des Moines, which enrolls about 100 Jewish students, opened its first Hillel house.

“There have been a lot of predictions about the community falling away,” said Rabbi Steven Edelman-Blank of Tifereth Israel. “I don’t know what the community will look like in 20 years, but I’m not negative about it.”

While Jewish events at the federation don’t exactly teem with 20- and 30-somethings, an emphasis is made to put responsibility in the hands of young Jews who have decided to settle here, hundreds of miles from the coastal power centers. Josh Mandelbaum, an environmental lawyer and Des Moines native who sits on the board of the Iowa Jewish Senior Life Center, quipped that at age 36 he might be getting too old for an invitation to join a community board.

“In Washington, D.C., I never could have been federation president or chair of AIPAC at 34,” said Adelman, who worked in the capital on John Kerry’s presidential campaign. “In Des Moines, you have that ability.”

“Especially in Jewish life, you’re a big fish in a small pond,” said Jarad Bernstein, 34, who moved to Des Moines from San Francisco five years ago after wife, Liliana, got a job at Drake. Now the director of public relations at the university, Bernstein also sits on the federation’s executive board.

“There’s a genuine feeling that you don’t just put a young person on the board as a token,” he said. “We know that it’s our future.”