While speaking about the upcoming election, Ronen Khordipour can barely contain his excitement.
"This opens doors," said the 20-year-old junior at New York University, referring to the history-making candidacy of Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman. "Before this, a Jewish student would never think they could actually run for high office." The selection of Lieberman as vice-presidential running mate to Democratic nominee Al Gore, said Khordipour, tells students that "you could lead any kind of Jewish life you want, and still succeed."
As an Israeli-born immigrant of Iranian background, that message is especially potent for Khordipour, who will cast his first vote in a presidential election next month.
"America is the most powerful country in the most prosperous times in human history," he says, recalling Lieberman’s speech at the Democratic convention, which he attended as an intern with AIPAC. "Here a Jewish guy steps on stage with the whole world before him proving to anyone that your dreams can come true."
As Election Day approaches, Lieberman is not only shaping up as a boon to Jewish Democratic activists and, perhaps, to Gore. He’s also indirectly providing a shot in the arm to student activism and pride and, in the eyes of Jewish outreach professionals, embodying the message of campus Hillel houses.
"There has definitely been interest stimulated in a population that has been disenfranchised from the political process," says Robert Lichtman, associate vice president of Hillel-The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. "Lieberman being nominated … helps motivate Jews to get involved Jewishly, in many ways. He has set an example that expressing one’s Jewishness is not only going to shul, but it also means being a political activist when Jewish values are at the core of their motivation."
Khordipour, president of Torch PAC, a pro-Israel club at NYU, does not envision a career in politics. But he sees political activism as a way to generate support for Israel. And at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the presidential election are jointly dominating the headlines, he sees a unique opportunity. "We are dealing with the most ubiquitous topics of our times," he says. An economics major, he speaks excitedly about an upcoming meeting with the state Democratic committee’s Jewish liaison to coordinate efforts for Gore-Lieberman and a "Reg-Keg" party, in which free beer is a draw for voter registration.
"We encourage students to get involved politically," he says. "It’s important that we have political connections so we can be in a position to lobby for Israel."
It may be an exaggeration to say that Lieberman-mania is sweeping the college world. Exams, social events and, not least, local crises are consuming plenty of club-hour attention. At Hunter College, the campus Hillel was abuzz last week with reaction to a vehemently anti-Israel letter in the college paper, The Envoy.
"People are more concerned about that, although it’s kind of died down," says Hunter Hillel director Nica Galperin.
But campus professionals are clearly seeing an opportunity to attract more participation. Lieberman-related lectures are expected to be a draw. At NYU, Lieberman’s stepson, Ethan Tucker is scheduled to appear this month while the candidate’s DC rabbi, Barry Freundel, will speak at Brooklyn College.
Rabbi Andy Bachman, director of NYU’s Bronfman Center for Jewish life, says he sees a marked difference in attitude and awareness on the campus compared to the last major election. "There is no question that among Jewish students, Lieberman has turned them into first-time voters faster than if he were not on the presidential ticket. I’ve seen lots of Gore-Lieberman yarmulkes and T-shirts on people who wouldn’t ordinarily wear them."
In conversations, the rabbi has also found support for the Jewish nominee in some unlikely corners. "I’ve had conversations with people who identified themselves as Republican, but they just can’t get past their Jewishness. They have to vote for Lieberman."
One of them is Alan Strasser, 20, a sophomore at NYU’s Stern School of Business. "I’m voting for Gore and Lieberman because it’s a huge step in American politics. … Having a minority, or Jewish person elected as vice president says something about America and the direction in which it is heading. I’d like to move the country in that direction."
At Brooklyn College’s Hillel, the student Hillel president also confesses to being a registered Republican who will back Gore-Lieberman over Bush-Cheney.
"[Lieberman] has integrity," says Nicole Hakimi, 18, who voted for Arizona Sen. John McCain in the Republican presidential primary this year. "He felt comfortable speaking out against Clinton and wasn’t afraid to suffer the consequences."
At Queens College, Hillel director Rabbi Moshe Shur said participation in this year’s voter registration drive has reached new heights, which he attributes to "the Lieberman factor."
"Last year, students were apathetic, but this year they are very into it. I’ve noticed a greater sense among Jewish students of interest in the presidential race."
Even the fraternity crowd is wading into the fray. Brooklyn College’s chapter of the Jewish-founded Alpha Epsilon Pi is planning a leaflet drive in support of the Lieberman ticket, said its president, Corey Wasserman, 20. "I’ll never be interested in running for president," says Wasserman, an education major. "But at least I know you can get so far if you do go for it."
But even as the campaign gains momentum elsewhere, interest on campus may be waning as students are beckoned by the grind of midterms and term papers. Lieberman’s candidacy was first announced in mid-August, before the semester began, and it has been a factor for close to six weeks.
"Some of the hubbub has died down," said Shaya Klechevsky, 20, an Orthodox Jew attending a student government meeting at Brooklyn College’s Student Union Building Monday. "There was some coffee talk, ‘OK, he’s running, let’s see what happens.’"
But Klechevsky said he continued to view the nomination as an important milestone. "I’m really interested to see how this is going to turn out. This is a Jewish person who is not running for local government, the City Council, but for vice president of the United States. It’s a step forward."
For Kerry Malinsky, 18, a Brooklyn College freshman who was born to Ukrainian immigrant parents, the sense of pride is even deeper. "For so long Jews have been oppressed in history," she said. "Now I can stand tall and hold my head up high."