Recent polls from organizations such as the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press report a potentially significant shift in the party affiliation of Jewish voters. Jews have traditionally been a dependable bastion of support for the Democratic Party, even if the polices of both the Republicans and the Democrats support Israel and posture themselves to ally with Jewish voters and donors. But the shift comes at a time when many view President Barack Obama and the Democrats’ support of Middle Eastern issues weaken when challenged with glaring inconsistencies between the party’s ideology and actions the State of Israel believes it must take to survive. Pew’s analysis shows Jewish voter affiliation with the Democratic Party fell from a 52-point advantage margin in 2008, to a 36-point margin in 2011. Still most Jewish voters either are Democratic supporters or lean toward Democrats, the sudden drop is rather significant. Although, it is hard to gauge whether Jewish attendance during last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference, hosted by the American Conservative Union, had increased; through the enterprising work of one significant new organization, the Jewish presence and future clout could not be overlooked.
Attending the annual CPAC, the largest gathering of conservatives in Washington D.C., was difficult for observant Jews in previous years since most of the conference falls on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest; a period from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday that is filled with ritual, prayer, celebration and relaxation. Observant Jews are forbidden to carry, use electricity, handle money, and work; rituals based on G-d’s commandment to remember the day he rested after the world’s creation, and the day Jews prepared to leave slavery in Egypt. This year, the organization known as Young Jewish Conservatives, with its members and supporters, significantly alleviated this conflict by organizing Shabbat services and events spanning the entire Shabbat period – free and open to all willing to join. The events were wildly successful.
YJC began around a year back when Yitzchok Tendler and Ben Packer, who met while studying in Israel, began organizing a student trip to Israel for young Jewish conservatives. Realizing that many Jewish voters, especially students, were looking for a new home for their political beliefs following what many members believe to be the President’s betrayal of Israel and ineptness handling Israel-Palestine issues; the seeds of a community waiting to be organized and aided in their activism appeared ready for unification.
“We knew that there was a group of college students that was not being aided by any organization,” said Packer. “Not only are they underserved but they should be a powerful part of the Jewish community, and they weren’t allowed to be part of that.”
They began forming connections: contacting students, activists, and organizations such as the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Leadership Institute, to assess people’s interest and assemble a core group of conservative Jewish students willing to go on a trip to Israel. David Milstein, a student at Dickinson College, came across an ad online that sparked his interest.
“To me personally, the trip was important because I’ve always wanted to go back to Israel – I first went when I was 14 with my family – ever since, I’ve been much more influenced by what was going on in the Middle East – how our current President has been treating Israel,” said Milstein. “And it was pure coincidence that I came upon this trip, through Facebook. I contacted a few friends wanting to know more about the group, and then I actually emailed Yitz and found that it was going to be a great opportunity.”
The trip was successful, with 28 politically active conservative students from 20 different campuses throughout the country and one U.S. service member, spending time meeting with Israeli politicians and visiting important sites. They formed a core group of student organizers led by Milstein, who became the student organization’s President. The group agreed to hold Shabbat services and meals in a hotel suite for CPAC attendees wanting to observe Shabbat at the conference.
YJC reached out to renowned political activist Jeff Ballabon and his family, asking them to help organize and chair the event. Ballabon proved to be instrumental; he reached out to Jack Brach of New York’s Brach’s Catering who was so excited about the event that he donated an abundance of food for all of the meals.
The reception to their event was overwhelming, even though it was organized in as little as three weeks. For services and dinner, the suite was packed to capacity with more than 70 Jewish students, organizers, candidate and notable Jewish conservative stars such as the nationally syndicated talk radio host Michael Medved, who said Kiddush. One by one, dinner attendees listened to appeals from candidates from around the country – Jewish and otherwise – hoping to receive the organization’s blessing for their campaigns. Andrew Breitbart, the notorious founder of the Big Journalism blog; David Brog, the Jewish President of Christians United for Israel; Texas Senatorial Candidate Ted Cruz; Leadership Institute Vice President Steve Sutton; and others too numerous to list. As in the best communities, there was no pretense among the attendees. College students and luminaries sat side by side at the table for 3 meals from Friday to Saturday. Members of the Media, pundits, activists, students – ranging from Reform to Hassidic Jews – all enjoying each other’s company and the wonderful Kosher feasts. All attendees were encouraged to speak as long as they agreed to take the shot of Vodka or Scotch traditional after saying a “L’Chaim,” a toast, including the candidates.
Award winning Journalist and Foundation for Defense of Democracies Fellow, Joel Mowbray, served as the Master of Ceremonies; UCLA student Marisa Belinfante and Rochelle Ballabon worked tirelessly serving the meals and making sure attendees were satisfied. Jeff Ballabon and conservative columnist and author Ben Shapiro, took turns leading the services. Most, like Medved, stayed for the entire time. Some like Grover Norquist, founder and President of Americans for Tax Reform, poked in shortly to chat.
The group’s successful debut gives them earned confidence for the future. They believe their efforts will lead to more Jewish voters accepting conservatism, knowing a community exists to welcome them and fight for their issues.
“If you have somebody who’s a conservative and is a member of a Jewish community – and obviously established Jewish communities are overwhelmingly liberal, certainly if they belong to a synagogue or temple where liberalism is preached from the pulpit – then they probably don’t feel very comfortable, said Tendler. ”By creating this, we’re giving them the right to maintain a Jewish and conservative identity simultaneously without feeling guilty that they’re compromising.”
He continued, “They learn that Jewish tradition is not contrary to Conservatism but in many ways is a fulfillment of it.”
The student organizers found CPAC attendees overwhelmingly supportive, receiving positive acknowledgement when attendees saw the members’ T-shirts with YJC’s logo.
Milstein put YJC’s mission succinctly: “It’s to unify young Jews. It’s to support them on whatever campuses; their communities; to make them feel at home; to have a place to support the things they’re doing to defend Israel against anti-Semitism, which is sadly growing on campuses in the U.S.”
YJC is currently working to form affiliated groups on college campuses nationwide and are already planning future trips to Israel for young conservatives under the age of 30, with another trip scheduled for summer. With such a large turnout to their first CPAC event, they plan to continue as an annual event at CPAC in the coming years – in a larger room, with even more supporters expected to attend.