Reading over e-mail chains from his fraternity listserv, 20-year-old Natan Edelsburg was surprised to see a fairly balanced battle plugging and jabbing both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain in their heated presidential run.
A sophomore at New York University and native of the Upper East Side, Edelsburg, who will be casting his vote for president for the first time on Nov. 4, expected to see only the liberal point of view that seems to dominate campus politics.
“Our chapter seems pretty divided,” said Edelsburg, an Obama supporter and brother of Alpha Epsilon Pi, the predominantly Jewish fraternity on campus. “There’ve been lots of e-mails about the election — it’s been pretty back and forth about both candidates. It’s kind of surprising to me because I see college campuses — especially NYU — as very liberal, very pro-Obama.
“I think it must have to do with Israel,” he added.
For first-time voters, this is a particularly momentous, and potentially anxiety-producing election. The first African-American nominee for president, the first woman vice-presidential nominee, a worldwide economic collapse, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a nuclear Iran threatening Israel — it’s enough to make a rookie voter’s head spin.
But for many of the college students interviewed for this article, one emotion trumped everything, and beat back the anxieties of the day — excitement — for the historic candidacy, youthful vigor and change mantra of Barack Obama.
Yet Jewish students around the city, many of whom are of course flocking to Obama, seem to be much more divided than the larger student body, adding a touch of red to a very blue city and state.
“Our fraternity has members from all over the political spectrum,” agreed Joe Rosenberg, the president of Alpha Epsilon Pi. “I think that we actually represent a more politically diverse mix of views than the NYU student body as a whole.”
The young Jewish voter, it turns out, may not be the easiest catch for the Obama campaign. According to a recent American Jewish Committee poll, only 49 percent of those under 40 supported the Democratic nominee.
Among the NYU student body as a whole, however, Obama seems to be the more popular candidate by a long shot.
“Most people are really excited — it’s a very liberal campus, so I think it’s very apparent to see which way most people are swinging,” said Sara Gorney, 20, a junior at NYU and the deputy managing editor of the Washington Square News. “Most people are voting for Barack Obama, which kind of makes it an interesting microcosm in terms of how young people are voting.”
Edelsburg said, “We like the fact that [Obama is] young and there’s something new, and he’s really creating this aura of hope that is causing people to trust him to take our country out of this struggle.”
He added that he believes Obama’s relative lack of experience is actually a plus, “because he’s not tainted by politics. It’s very true among young people that we just don’t trust politicians at all.”
Edelsburg was impressed with the NYU College Democrats’ activism for Obama and their success in registering voters on campus.
“It’s been overwhelming how many people are registering to vote now,” Edelsburg said. “I usually get the sense that everyone is so lazy and doesn’t take the time to register. But everyone’s really taking the time to register.”
Neal Shecter, 21, a senior at NYU and the president of the College Democrats, organized the registration initiative, where he said they set up computer registration tables and particularly targeted students who come from swing states. In total, they were able to register or print absentee ballots for more than 1,000 students. The question is, according to political analysts, whether or not these unseasoned voters will actually get out and cast a ballot.
“Every student who registers from a swing state we’re going to call back in about a week to see if they need any help with their absentee ballot,” Schecter said. “The level of involvement is just through the roof. I’ve seen so many students becoming involved in politics for the first time because they’re so inspired by Sen. Obama.”
In addition to running registration drives and hosting debate-watching parties, Schecter has spoken on Obama’s behalf at the Bronfman Center, the building that houses NYU’s Hillel, as well as other Jewish programs.
Yet despite the overwhelming on-campus support for Obama, Jewish groups like Alpha Epsilon Pi remain largely splintered.
“It’s cool to vote liberal,” Gorney said, based on her campus observations as a newspaper editor. “There’s a pressure to vote but there’s a pressure to vote for one person [Obama], as opposed to what you feel in your heart.”
Rosenberg, the president of Alpha Epsilon Pi, followed the advice of an AIPAC representative and organized a fraternity-wide viewing party for the second presidential debate, to foster intellectual debate among the brothers and their guests. Yet while the party inspired conversation among the audience, the debate wasn’t quite as engaging a platform as Rosenberg would have hoped.
“I had a sense that people were frustrated that the candidates just kept saying the same things, not focusing on the issues, and not really answering the questions,” he said. “I heard more groans about both candidates than cheers of support for either one.”
Further uptown, Columbia’s Jewish students are experiencing much of the same divide on an overwhelmingly liberal campus.
“I guess the Jewish community here as a whole is kind of split,” said Daniel Reidler, 19, a Columbia freshman and member of the Yavneh Orthodox Jewish community there.
Adam Flomenbaum, 20, a junior at Columbia, has been involved with the Obama campaign since last summer, but he has many Orthodox friends who vote conservatively on a regular basis.
“The Republican students probably get drowned out a bit and maybe don’t feel that they can voice their opinions because the campuses are so overwhelmingly liberal,” Flomenbaum said.
Only at Yeshiva University have Republican Jewish students found themselves in the majority. But even there, this subgroup of New Yorkers complains that their voices won’t be heard.
“I don’t really lean in the direction of my state, but my single vote isn’t going to really make a difference,” said Bina Westrich, 20, a junior at Stern College, the all-female branch of Yeshiva University. Since New York is not a swing state, Westrich feels that her one vote will have no effect on the overall election.
Democratic Jewish students understand their Conservative peers’ critique of Obama when it comes to Israel, but they’re working to dispel rumors that Obama would be harmful to Israel.
“I still see a lot of liberalism in their ideas, but I think they have this misconception about how conservatives are better for Israel,” Flomenbaum said.
His friend down at NYU agreed and hopes that his chosen candidate will bring the end to the economic and international security anxieties that currently burden this country.
“Based on the past eight years and everything that’s happened, I think it’s clear that both candidate support Israel the same way — I don’t think that’s going to change among candidates,” Edelsburg said. “But I think that the fact that Obama is going to help America get through the struggle, that will eventually help Israel in the end.”