In this politics-heavy academic year, it should come as no surprise that the Young Republicans Club at Yeshiva University has recently signed up some 300 members.
“We’re the second-largest club on campus, after the Medical Ethics Society,” says the club president, Ben Jacobson.
At the same time, membership is also booming at the university’s Young Democrats club, with about a third as many members. But that’s a 100 percent increase over last year, when the club had fallen dormant.
Support for Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama is fueling the membership drives, with recruits pledging to help register voters and get them to turn out in November’s battle for the White House.
“Our members are actively involved in phone calls, rallies, even going door to door,” says Jacobson, 21, a business major from Chicago.
Olivia Mathias, the Young Democrats president, says her membership is working to counter what she calls “misinformation” about Obama. “So many people only know what they hear from their parents, instead of finding out for themselves,” says Mathias, 21, a Stern College political science major from Dallas.
The 3-to-1 split in favor of the Republicans at a university where the enrollment is almost entirely Modern Orthodox may provide a good glimpse at where that community stands in this historic election year.
While fervently Orthodox, “black hat” or chasidic Jews have shown themselves to be more monolithic in their traditional support of the more conservative candidates, Modern Orthodox Jews — who tend to engage the secular world more in academia, business and politics — may prove to be fertile ground in the Obama campaign’s troubled outreach efforts.
And while the Modern Orthodox vote may not amount to much in New York, a consistently blue state, it could be, depending on turnout, part of a swing vote in battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.
“Clearly the Modern Orthodox represent the best prospects for Democrats in this cycle within the Orthodox community,” says Ira Forman of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “There is a correlation among all voters in this country that the more religiously observant you are, the more Republican you are, but actually in the Jewish community that correlation is not as strong as it is in the Christian community.”
He noted that in the 2006 midterm elections, the Jewish vote for Democratic congressional candidates was 87 percent. “You couldn’t get that without significant portions of the Orthodox community,” said Forman.
Because religious considerations are a crucially important factor to Modern Orthodox Jews, but not the only factor, they may be more open to vote Democrat, Forman added. Mathias, who revitalized the Young Democrats this fall, says she gets plenty of tirades from fellow students about Obama’s alleged Muslim ties and purported potential to destroy Israel, as well as milder critiques of the Illinois senator in comparison with McCain.
“So many people are very adamant that McCain is better for the Jews and better for Israel,” says Mathias. “They say they would vote Democrat but Obama’s not a friend of Israel.”
But she’s also encountered a sizable number of receptive ears.
“One of my favorite responses is when someone came over [to a recruiting table] and said Obama is a Muslim because his middle name is Hussein,” says Mathias. “Another student said, ‘My name is Faygie and I don’t speak Yiddish and I’ve never been to Poland.’ ”
A majority of the Young Democrats are women from Stern, said Mathias, while only about 20 are men from Yeshiva College or Sy Sims School of Business.
“Women in general tend to be more liberal,” says Mathias.
A poll released last week by the American Jewish Committee found that among Orthodox Jews in general, the vast majority, 78 percent, favored McCain, while only 13 percent supported Obama, leaving only a small number of undecideds. In general, 57 percent of Jewish voters polled favored Obama, while 30 percent were for McCain.
The poll did not break down segments of the Orthodox community.
“No community—even the Orthodox community—is monolithic,” says Nathan Diament, director of public affairs for the Orthodox Union in Washington, D.C. “But based on polling and anecdotal evidence it is quite clear that McCain will do better among the Orthodox, be they Modern or haredi, overall than among American Jews in general. Slicing the onion to differentiate between Modern and haredi is very hard.”
But some say a fair number of Modern Orthodox votes may be up for grabs because the campaign is still so fluid.
David Borowich, chairman of the Council of Young Jewish Presidents and a board member of the Modern Orthodox West Side Institutional Synagogue, who organized a voter registration drive targeting young Jews in 2004, says the precipitous economic situation and instability in the Middle East have many Modern Orthodox voters paying close attention to the candidates’ emerging positions.
“Americans and American Jews have heightened awareness that there is a real threat and that’s factoring in,” said Borowitch, 38, who works in the financial sector. “There are real, meaningful differences between the candidates on those issues.”
“You will most likely see both camps using surrogates to specifically target those votes.” Borowitch faults Obama’s position on negotiating with Iran without preconditions and predicts that many Modern Orthodox Jews will as well.
But Jeff Ballabon, a political consultant who works with Modern Orthodox Jewish groups, said domestic considerations may affect some of that community’s vote as much as foreign policy.
“Some voters in the Modern Orthodox community will be divided between a hawkish view on Israel and a liberal view on domestic issues,” says Ballabon. “There are some who are making their first issue their liberal stance on abortion.”
Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld of CLAL – the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a nondenominational think tank, says that while it’s apparent that McCain will appeal to most Modern Orthodox voters, “on the other hand there is a kind hopefulness that Obama evokes. Oftentimes, when things are not going well, religious people have a serious investment in being hopeful and that’s what religion is all about. To be deeply religious is to see new possibilities. But whether Obama has tapped into that I don’t know.”
Rabbi Hirschfeld said that in his view there was not much difference between the stated Israel policies of the two candidates, making criticism of Obama mostly based on mistrust.
“The first thing you have to ask yourself when there is a breakdown of trust is what’s keeping you from trusting. Both of these candidates seem deeply committed to the America-Israel relationship.”
At many Modern Orthodox strongholds, the debate between voters on both sides, however disproportionate they are, is likely to intensify.
At Congregation Kehillat Jeshurun on the Upper East Side, Rabbi Haskell Lookstein recently wrote in his Rosh HaShanah newsletter of the need for both sides to understand each other and differ amiably.
“Our congregation is split between people who are voting for either candidate,” said Rabbi Lookstein. “I don’t know which side is more significant.”
In the shul bulletin, the rabbi wrote of the critical issues facing the United States and Israel that will be affected by this election and how “people will disagree as to who will deal best with those issues. But we should all make sure we disagree agreeably.
“We have to remember that all the people who are voting either way have the best interests of America in one case and Israel in the other at heart, but just disagree about how those best interests are served.”