He has disguised himself as an African tribal chief, a Chinese farmer, even a Blues Brother.
But when Mordechai Sandman is not dressing up on the Jewish holiday of Purim, some onlookers mistake the new Ward 28 Alderman’s everyday look — the black yarmulke, an occasional prayer shawl, a full, reddish-brown beard — for a costume unto itself, or even worse, a signal to stay away.
“When people first meet me, they probably box me into, ‘You are an orthodox Jew, you hold certain political views, you won’t talk to certain types of people,’” said Sandman, who is known to all as “Moti” (pronounced “Mutty”). “The reality is that I’m just a regular guy that’s interested in seeing his neighborhood become a better place, and I’m willing to work with anyone wants to make it a better place as well.”
Perhaps, but Sandman has one thing wrong: by today’s standards, he is anything but a “regular guy.”
In the hours before and after pushing for a clean up of Beaver Park Pond or community policing — two major tenets of the three-plank platform he ran on in the uncontested November election — Sandman is praying.
He prays, in fact, three times a day — and that’s not all. He studies the Torah through the Orthodox Jewish Yeshiva Bais Dovid Shlomo synagogue, twice a week, often after city meetings, keeping kosher along the way. He sits on the board of a local Jewish academy. His three young children have Hebrew names — Chaya-Esther, Dovod and Rivka-Rosa — and he hopes that they will follow in his ancestors’ footsteps and “become a new link in the chain back to Abraham.”
Abraham: the first patriarch of the Jewish faith, but also the character in biblical history who Sandman’s rabbi, Sheya Hecht, said most resembles the freshman Democrat, even if Abraham lived to age 175 while Sandman only recently celebrated his thirty-first birthday.
“Each one of the Jewish patriarchs are well-known for one virtue, and I think Moti carries all three,” Hecht said, explaining that Abraham was kind, inviting guests to his home, Isaac was a strong leader, and Jacob was devoted to his family. “Since he was a little boy, I see where he was coming from and where he wanted to go.”
Sandman may strive to be righteous, but by no means does the strategic machinery of politics escape him. He knows well that he may cast the deciding vote as to whether Carl Goldfield could become president of the Board of Aldermen again — last year’s vote was 16 to 14. But he is among those aldermen who are coy when it comes to their affiliations. Sandman explains that he will decide when he must, and no sooner — as per campaign advice given to him by a friend.
Ari Caroline, who sits on the board of the Southern Connecticut Hebrew Academy with Sandman, describes his politics in one word: “Apolitical.”
“It’s one of the strongest qualities he brings to the process,” he said, “being somebody who wants to be an agent for positive change and just has no personal ambition or agenda.”
When asked why he prioritizes cleaning up Beaver Park Pond above all other issues, he said, “All politics are local.”
“We have a tarnished jewel sitting in the middle of New Haven,” he said. “Let’s take advantage of it. It has the potential to be amazing.”
Sandman also sees potential in city youth, and he ran on a platform of combating what he sees as some of the greatest threats to their well-being, such as a local shooting range for policemen which he described as dangerous and emotionally disruptive to nearby schoolchildren. Sandman would also like to build on the successes of charter schools by applying their pedagogical practices to city schools.
Though Caroline said Sandman made a “spur of the moment” decision to run, following former alderwoman Babz Rawls-Ivy’s resignation after she admitted to embezzling $49,000 in city funds, his political roots are not a recent development.
His father Joshua Sandman — a political science professor at the University of New Haven — could tell from the start. While Sandman’s siblings were not always excited about helping their father canvass, Moti eagerly grabbed the brochures, handing them to neighbors.
“He loves that interaction with people,” Joshua Sandman said.
Rachel Sandman, Moti Sandman’s mother, interjected, “He always wanted to help the underdog.”
As an orthodox Jew in a multiethnic neighborhood, Moti Sandman has found himself in the position of the underdog in the occasional run-in with anti-Semitism.
“Let’s get those boys with those strings!” a member of a visiting New Haven team once shouted at Sandman and his Jewish friends on the Westville Youth Association Little League squad, for which he was a four-year catcher and power hitter.
“The most heartening thing about that was that my non-Jewish friends were just as mad,” Sandman said.
Two decades later, Sandman has shown himself to be immune to the perception that the religion and politics are not a kosher combination — though not without some inspiration.
“I learned from Joe Lieberman that you can be an orthodox Jew, run a campaign and win,” he said. “In all his years of campaigning, he never campaigned on the Sabbath, and that’s something to be respected. So I had him as a role model.”
In this line of questioning the root of Sandman’s adoration for the American political system surfaces. He was a political science major at Touro College in New York City and revitalized the political science club there.
“We live in America, a country of freedom of religion, not freedom from religion, and this is what makes America great,” he said. “You’ll always have bigots, you’ll always have racists, you’ll always have anti-Semites, but as long as you’re qualified, you’ve got a fighting chance [to win an election].”
But there is another source of Sandman’s philosophy, and it comes from within his family — whom he still sees for dinner at least twice a week — rather than in any external set of laws: David Deitsch, Sandman’s grandfather. Everyone who knows Sandman intimately and watched him agrees that his grandfather was his personal hero.
“He was a giant among men in my eyes,” said Sandman, who by day is a manager at Deitsch Plastic Co., a third-generation family business. “He taught me what it means to be a mensch.”
After all, therein lies the running theme in Sandman’s life. He sees a small pond, and decides it can be the best body of water in the region; he sees a city and decides it can be unified; he sees a religion, and decides it should be practiced to the utmost.
Maybe Sandman will be disappointed — he said he has already been somewhat disillusioned by the fact that the aldermen can exert minimal control over the Board of Education — or maybe, he will push the notoriously slow-moving city government to a new and positive extreme.
His father, whose wife never allowed him to run for alderman because of the time commitment, certainly hopes so.
“I’m living vicariously through him,” he said.
As for the rest of Ward 28, residents might be thinking of a line from a 1954 Chordettes classic that Sandman often references when asked his name.
“Mr. Sandman,” the song goes, “bring us a dream.”