Recently, I had the privilege of attending the annual conference organized by the Republican Jewish Coalition, held at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. With over a thousand attendees, the event was a melting pot of diverse perspectives within the Jewish politically conservative community. I met a Shabbos-observant family who had been attending for over two decades, even back to when the only kosher food was in the form of an airplane meal. Now maybe 15% of the attendees are Orthodox, there is a shul for all minyanim, and the entire event is kosher with more pleasing options than airplane food.
What unfolded over the weekend was a rich tapestry of experiences, conversations, and revelations that I’m eager to share. Here’s a recounting of my experience, which defied my initial expectations and left me with some thought-provoking insights.
The Social Landscape: Breaking Barriers
When I first registered, I had envisioned the convention as a sanctuary for staunchly conservative Jews. However, what I encountered was a far more nuanced and welcoming environment. The event served as a social equalizer, breaking down barriers of economic status and social standing. As someone who is not a natural extrovert and who grapples with the social anxiety of meeting new people, I had my own strategies for engagement – participating in minyan (which I ordinarily do) and sharing moderately priced, aged, single malt whiskey (at least 16 years old since 12 years is no longer good enough). These tactics not only eased my nerves but also led to some unforgettable interactions.
Growing up in the not so Orthodox Miami Beach community, my dad made sure that my brothers and I knew how to lein and read haftaras. Almost anyone can daven, but not everyone can lein. This summer I was in Iceland with my wife and the Chabad Rabbi surprisingly waited till after Shacharit before asking if anyone could read from the Torah. I made a lot of friends that morning when I volunteered. At the RJC minyan, the gabbai turned out to be the father of a very old friend of mine and he allowed me to read the Haftara Shabbat morning.
Davening in a minyan is the great social equalizer because each person is typically treated with the same dignity and respect. At the RJC, that feeling of common cause transcended each person’s economic status level and extended itself to the rest of the conference experience.
I remember maybe 20 years ago at Young Israel of Century City in Los Angeles, Rabbi Elazar Muskin gave a passionate speech encouraging (really demanding) each person in shul that morning to say hello to the person sitting next to them. It was not a request. He wanted people to feel welcome and get to know the community. That is the feeling I had as I sat down at each meal or presentation. The name tags were big and obvious and encouraged people to immediately initiate a conversation by asking where you were from. With Jewish geography being what it is, it didn’t take more than one or two references to establish a connection with each person I met.
The People I Met: A Cross-Section of America
From a humble man (he said he wasn’t a macher) from Kansas who had still hosted his state’s governor in his home (because he stepped up) to a young Chabad couple (with five children home in Pittsburgh) connected to Nikki Haley’s super PAC, to a young definitely not Orthodox high-tech couple from San Francisco (not a haven for conservatives), the attendees were a diverse lot. Each person I met added a new layer to my understanding of what it means to be a Jewish conservative in America today.
One particularly memorable interaction was with a gentleman so pleased with my whiskey offering that he invited me to fly back to L.A. on his private jet. The offer was so tempting that I found myself contemplating selling my car just to accept it. While I ultimately declined, the episode was a testament to the power of genuine connection.
One of the most striking observations was the absence of extreme partisanship and radicalism. The attendees, much like myself, seemed more concerned with issues than with personalities. From Governor Sarah Sanders’s poignant and riveting account of her childhood visit with her family to Yad Vashem where she wrote in the guestbook, “Why people allowed the Holocaust to happen and didn’t do anything to stop it.” Or Lindsey Graham’s unequivocal support for Israel, and his declaration that the only ceasefire is when Hamas ceases to exist, many of the speakers touched on themes that transcended party lines. The focus of the weekend was on ethical imperatives rather than political point-scoring.
The Candidates: A Varied Palette
After Shacharit services, we met the candidates. Each of the candidates came up on stage (with their campaign theme song playing in the background) greeted to varying degrees of enthusiasm. One candidate regretfully received a few very obvious boos, which to me were in bad taste and embarrassing in this forum. As the candidates’ stump speeches proceeded from Vivek Ramaswamy (awesome speaker despite the fact that his isolationist stance and fanciful “diplomatic iron dome” position fell on deaf ears), to Tim Scott (great love for Israel in his Baptist revival like speech), to Chris Christie (who appeared to be phoning it in without even preparing a speech, as he admitted), to Doug Burgum (the most intellectual of the bunch), to Ron DeSantis (who really was awesome and presidential when recounting all his firsts ahead of other governors with his decisions and actions to support Israel and his Jewish constituency), to Mike Pence (who spoke eloquently for 15 minutes before shocking the audience with the announcement that he was ending his campaign), to Nikki Haley (who reminds me of the saying that everyone loves Nikki because she really is that nice while being determined and sensible), to Trump as the last speaker who forced me to reset my initial conceptions and beliefs about my fellow attendees.
When Trump was introduced, he didn’t immediately walk up to the microphone like everyone else. He stood there grinning and waving for two very long minutes as his fight song played over the speaker system. The college students who had been relegated to the “cheap seats” in the back rushed up to the front to take photos and videos of Trump before they were nicely asked to go back to their seats. The audience was cheering and cheering – what looked like complete adulation – until he took the microphone.
I turned to the person sitting next to me as I looked on incredulously and I remarked that he looked like a candidate no other could beat. What I think I experienced was not a fanatic following I thought had existed when I had built up a mental image of the populace of the RJC constituency. It was something much more visceral and in some ways even sensible. Trump spoke for 20 minutes (maybe even more) as if someone had given him some Prozac. It felt like his speech blended Churchillian gravitas with Jackie Mason-esque humor. He was in his own way cogent yet funny and familiar and I would even say likable. If you asked me in advance of the RJC to explain this hybrid personality, I would not be able to do it. Having seen him live, and watching and listening to the crowd, there was an indefinable aspect of Trump I began to perceive. While some candidates, like Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, showcased impressive leadership credentials and future promise, they could not match the organic connection Donald Trump had forged with the audience. I don’t write this in support of Trump. It was plainly obvious and inescapable that the room supported his policy positions and more importantly his ability to deliver them as compared to the other candidates. What he was saying energetically resonated deeply with the crowd in a way that the other candidates could not pull off. Even Haley – who received many standing ovations and said all the right things – didn’t get the same level of response that Trump seemed to trigger.
I’ll share another example. DeSantis did an excellent job recounting the things he has done in Florida (really great things) and how he survived the woke universities of Harvard and Yale to still remain a conservative, and how he expertly redefined DEI (diversity, equity, and exclusion, as discrimination, exclusion, and indoctrination). With his laundry list of accomplishments, DeSantis still could not match Trump’s own list of achievements – especially when Trump tossed out that recognizing the Golan Heights took 12 minutes. He also said that when he moved the American embassy to Jerusalem he had received quotes of $2 billion to build a new building. He asked his team to find property they already owned that could be retrofitted. And when they showed him the property, they originally asked for a $400,000 budget. He jokingly told the conference audience that for the first time in his life he told his team it’s too cheap; add another $100,000 to the budget. He said that had he approved the purchasing of a new building it would have taken years and would never have been completed. Instead the move was completed in four months.
Trump marched through his triumphs and his intentions for a next four-year term that almost perfectly matched the thoughts swirling in people’s heads.
The Bigger Picture: A Middle Ground Emerges
To be clear, as far as it looked by monitoring the audience, the candidates and the guest speakers mostly said the right things in terms of policies. They denounced the Squad. They declared unwavering support for Israel. They condemned the antisemitism even to the point of a few of them saying they would create legislation to defund schools that allowed pro-Hamas protests and rallies to continue. They rejected all calls for ceasefire that would in any way inhibit Israel’s right to defend itself. The list goes on. In short, because what is happening in Israel and Gaza is at the forefront of every conversation, the ongoing theme of speeches during the weekend was about good versus evil. It wasn’t about the good and evil of Republicans vs. Democrats. It was about standing up and doing what is right regardless of party affiliation.
Clearly though this was a Republican-oriented convention; so naturally beating the Democrats in the election is the obvious reason to gather together and support this goal. Yet, the Democrats as the opposition was not the thrust of the weekend. It’s the feeling that the Democratic Party has been hijacked that is the larger issue. The claim is that a small, very loud and noisy minority of woke leftists have poisoned the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party at large is being held prisoner by the extreme left in a sadly similar way that the Palestinians in Gaza gave over the power to Hamas. The claims were made again and again in multiple speeches that Biden and his administration have caved to the demands of the Left.
I write this impression in a sort of optimistic way to highlight a counterintuitive idea that has been percolating for months. The middle ground between both parties is much more enticing and attractive than it has been for years. The extreme positions in both parties have become so polarized that they seemed to have left the middle position wide open. The middle ground in American politics is actually widening, making room for more moderate voices. Trump’s surprisingly measured demeanor and Haley’s affable yet strong presence hinted at this shift. They and some other candidates seemed to bring something to the table that might attract those disenchanted with the current state of their respective parties.
Trump has been branded as the mean, poster child for the extreme version of Republicans. If you listened to his speech carefully, he didn’t actually appear so extreme. That’s one of the more surprising things I observed during his speech. The adulation was there because his policies looked logically consistent and compelling to people who wanted to reverse inflation, secure the borders, and see people have better lives.
The people to the left of the middle that could never in the past have voted for Trump might find themselves tired of their own party sacrificing its ideals to loud voices that reflect a different vision. All it might take for those left-of-middle-of-the-roaders would be seeing and hearing the “Nicer Trump” I saw Shabbat morning. The not so polished statesman who doesn’t necessarily say the right things but he doesn’t have to say the wrong things either. He doesn’t have to be the nice guy in the room, but he doesn’t need to be the mean guy either.
Now Trump will likely not polish his image and that leads those people feeling abandoned by their party to more easily switching their allegiance to Haley sooner than they would switch to DeSantis. It appears as if she has most of the same policies as Trump but presents herself as the nice, yet strongly committed and reasonable person in the room. What she also broadcasts clearly is that she alone has the ability to beat Biden. She said this up on stage and quoted polls that show she is the only candidate who can win the election. She might be right too. But she has to win the primaries first and this is a tough mountain to climb and overcome.
One final remark on DeSantis. He had so many good, even great talking points and accomplishments. He looked and sounded presidential. He had energy and vitality at a level that surpassed most of the candidates. He was so very impressive. And yet, I felt that the room was not giving him the space to grow in this moment. I spoke to people about this and the feeling I was getting is he should be back in four years. He is the right person for the job but not now. It’s a tough nut to crack because he has so much going for him that make him electable. Timing though is sometimes everything.
Final Thoughts: The Call of ‘Va’elech‘
Because of the war in Israel and the explosive amount of media coverage on antisemitism and the fear that world opinion (to the extent there is support for Israel) is going to shift sooner rather than later against Israel, I wanted to share one final observation. Being at the RJC conference was in some ways like singing Dayeinu at the Passover Seder. If the capstone of the weekend was witnessing the new Speaker of the House Mike Johnson make his first public speech at the RJC, I would have said Dayeinu in the sense that the Jewish people are important to one branch of government today. If another capstone was Pence revealing at the RJC the suspension of his campaign, I would have said Dayeinu again that a former Vice President and presidential candidate chose the RJC to make this historical announcement. Add another capstone that the RJC is a co-sponsor of the next Presidential Debate. The list could keep going. My point is that we may not be so much of a pariah in America, let alone the rest of the world.
We have allies, a voice, and a responsibility to act. If anything comes from this article, maybe it is this, that we should learn from Rebecca in this week’s parsha. When she was asked by Eliezer if she wanted to leave her family and come back to Israel to marry a man she never met, she didn’t ask questions. She didn’t hem and haw. Like my niece’s boyfriend who left Columbia University and flew back to his army unit in Israel the same day he heard about the attacks in Israel, he didn’t ask questions. He saw what was obvious and like Rebecca, he said Va’elech, I will go, and he went.
We too have to adopt the battle cry of Va’elech. “Going and doing” might mean actually going to Israel or going to minyan, or supporting Israel financially, or learning Torah. Everyone has to define Va’elech for themselves. The point is to move forward and do more than you did yesterday. And above all, as we say each morning before Shema, “V’lo naivosh le’olam va’ed”: We will not be ashamed or embarrassed as we connect to Hashem and his Torah and his Land. Am Yisrael chai.