Last weekend a core group of conservatives got together to learn, strategize and drum up the vote for their political candidate in the swing state of Pennsylvania. But two characteristics of this group stick out – they are Jewish! And they are young!
The twenty-somethings were holed up in a hotel outside Philadelphia, spending a traditional Shabbat – new for some of them – and talking about conservative politics – not new for any of them. The attendees were all members of the appropriately-named Young Jewish Conservatives (YJC), who have come together to promote conservative causes in the United States, infused with Jewish values and in defense of Israel.
YJC was conceived of by two American, Jewishly observant Zionists who deal with college-age Jews: Ben Packer and Yitzchok Tendler. Packer was a rabbi with Jewish Experience Movement of the South on the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill campus, and at Duke University. Tendler worked with Jerusalem Fellowships, taking Jewish college students to Israel. Both recognized something was missing on the campuses: there was nothing available for Jewish students who are politically conservative.
As Packer told The Jewish Press, “we noticed three things: one, politically conservative Jewish students on campus were being treated like outcasts, even within the traditional Jewish campus organizations; two, the trend in the Democratic party was going against Israel, with President Obama being an extreme example; and three, politically conservative college students have the values that are closest to Jewish values.” The two decided to join forces and create an organization to fill the obvious need.
The first organized effort by YJC was the Yameena Fellowship trip to Israel over last winter break. There was a second Yameena Fellowship trip this summer. There were about 30 participants on each trip. As Packer explained, “when we say young Jewish conservatives, not all of our members are equally, or even especially, conservative on all issues, and religiously they come from across the spectrum, but the single thread that pulls us all together is the pro-Israel focus, that is what solidifies the group.”
A rising star in the YJC is David Milstein. A Dickinson College senior who hails from Virginia, Milstein learned about YJC when he saw an ad for a free trip to Israel for politically conservative American Jews. The last time Milstein was in Israel was when Milstein was 13, and he was eager to go back. He was especially excited about the idea of having a trip geared to someone with his interests, rather than the typical Birthright trip which doesn’t venture into Judea and Samaria, and which is frequently centrist to liberal, politically.
Milstein could barely contain himself as he described to The Jewish Press the YJC Israel trips. “We went to the border towns, we went all the way up in the Golan, we had briefings in the Knesset, and we were treated to lessons on diplomacy and Israeli history by members of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” One of the highlights was a special meeting between the YJC members and former Soviet refusenik and current head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky.
According to Milstein, everyone who has gone on the YJC Israel trips was already interested and maybe already somewhat active. “But what they leave the trip with is the clear confidence to go back to the campuses and advocate – really stand up for – Israel.” Milstein finishes: “There’s a real transformation.”
Milstein went on both YJC Israel trips. The first time, last winter, he went as a regular participant. This summer, after he was elected student president of the organization, Milstein went as a staff member.
Barely a year into its existence, YJC already boasts members from colleges across the country, including American University, UCLA, Hofstra University, Wellesley College, Brandeis University, Rutgers University, Harvard University, Pittsburgh University, Temple University and more than a dozen others.
In addition to the trips to Israel and this month’s shabbaton in the Philadelphia suburbs, YJC members also participated in two political conventions in Washington, D.C. over the past year. The first was at the Conservative Political Action Committee which took place in February, the second was at the Faith and Freedom Conference which took place in June.
Dovi Meles is from Philadelphia and he was back this summer. In the past he has been informally involved with the Republican Jewish Coalition, and was asked by that leadership to help put together a shabbaton for YJC members who might stay and work with the RJC on their swing state focus in Pennsylvania this week.
“They wanted to have interesting content and since I’m from the area I knew who might be available,” Meles said.
The programming Meles put together was heavy both on political content and on Jewish observance and networking. One presentation was made by a former high-level Pentagon official talking about Iran, another was by Susan Kone, a Dartmouth College and University of Pennsylvania Law School grad who ran against Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) for US Congress. The YJC members heard from a tea party strategist, a Zionist organization founder and leader, and a Jewish social media guru.
The goal of YJC, according to Packer, “is to make Jewish politically conservative students: better conservatives, better Jews and better pro-Israel activists.”
While David Milstein was already a committed conservative, he grew up in a Reform home and was not especially engaged with Jewish practices. Due to his involvement with YJC, “where all official events incorporate Jewish traditions such as Shabbat observance and kosher meals,” Milstein told The Jewish Press,” I now try to observe Shabbat regularly, whether or not I am with the YJC, and I certainly will attend synagogue services for the high holidays.” “This experience,” he says, “is having an impact on my understanding of the importance of my faith.”