Jewish students mobilize young Americans — and their grandparents — for Biden
US 2020 presidential race'Biden’s nuanced approach is what young Jews want to see'

Jewish students mobilize young Americans — and their grandparents — for Biden

A failed bid for student body vice president led Ethan Wolf to launch Jews 4 Joe, a push to get young Jews to vote blue, which now has hundreds of volunteers across 65 campuses

Clockwise from top right: Izzy Baer, co-director of Jews 4 Joe's outreach for young professionals; Jews4Joe logo; Ethan Wolf, co-founder of Jews4Joe; a photo of Joe Biden from a Jews4Joe ad; Sarah Gordon, third from right, is co-director of college outreach for Jews4Joe. (All photos of Jews4Joe courtesy; Biden photo by AP/Andrew Harnik)
Clockwise from top right: Izzy Baer, co-director of Jews 4 Joe's outreach for young professionals; Jews4Joe logo; Ethan Wolf, co-founder of Jews4Joe; a photo of Joe Biden from a Jews4Joe ad; Sarah Gordon, third from right, is co-director of college outreach for Jews4Joe. (All photos of Jews4Joe courtesy; Biden photo by AP/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON — It was his own election loss for student body vice president that spurred Ethan Wolf to mobilize young American Jews to play an active role in the 2020 American presidential election.

Following his unsuccessful bid, the rising junior at Ohio State University and two of his peers started Jews 4 Joe, a grassroots political movement that seeks to energize young American Jews to turn out and vote for presumed Democratic candidate Joe Biden. The former vice president will be formally nominated as the Democratic candidate at the party convention, which will run between August 17 and 20.

“I learned a lot about representing a marginalized community, and how to take the Jewish message, and making sure Jewish voices are heard — that’s inspired some of my leadership in the last couple of months with Jews 4 Joe,” Wolf, 20, said of his election loss and the impetus for initiating what he calls the Democratic “Jewish outreach team for young individuals.”

Wolf, who is studying public affairs and economics at OSU, returned to his Chicago-area home at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. Soon thereafter, he connected with Eva Wyner, then a senior at Columbia University, and Ben Kanas, a recent OSU graduate.

After recognizing the absence of a Jewish niche within the myriad student-led groups seeking to vote US President Donald Trump out of the White House this November, they launched Jews 4 Joe. They envisioned it as a platform for engaging the young Jewish electorate while emphasizing the role of Jewish values in this election.

Ethan Wolf, co-founder of Jews 4 Joe, campaigning for student body vice president at Ohio State University in 2019. (Courtesy)

“Judaism demands of us that we pursue justice, that we pursue what’s right, that we care about our neighbors,” explained Sarah Gordon, a rising junior at Emory University and a co-director of Jews 4 Joe’s college outreach team. “To a lot of Jewish students, the president — or the occupant of the White House — does not embody any of those values which we hold dear.”

In the four months since its inception, Jews 4 Joe has recruited more than 65 college campus ambassadors, amassed over 3,500 social media followers, and enlisted some 200 millennial and Gen-Z volunteers. The group also hosts a virtual speaker series, with past guests including Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH) and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and former ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. Among the upcoming speakers is former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke.

Since 1924, the majority of American Jews have consistently voted for Democrats in presidential elections, often by sweeping margins. In 17 of the past 25 presidential elections, over 70 percent of American Jews are estimated to have voted Democrat. According to the American Jewish Population Project (AJPP) at Brandeis University, 51.2% of American Jews identify as Democrats, as opposed to 33.5% of the general population.

Far from becoming complacent, the party continues to reserve designated spaces for Jewish engagement. In March, the Democratic National Committee named Matt Nosanchuk its Jewish community liaison, and last month the Biden campaign tapped Aaron Keyak as its Jewish engagement director.

Similarly, Jews 4 Joe seeks to transcend any historical precedent and reinvigorate the Jewish electorate through its own networks.

“My fear is that people are not going to vote, or less consequentially, do so reluctantly,” said Izzy Baer, the 21-year-old co-director of the group’s outreach team for young professionals.

Izzy Baer, co-director of Jews 4 Joe’s outreach for young professionals. (Courtesy)

Emory student Gordon echoed this sentiment by explaining how combating political apathy and voter fatigue are key goals of Jews 4 Joe’s outreach efforts.

“A great deal of political organizing, at least what we’re doing, isn’t about persuasion,” said 20-year-old Gordon. “It’s just the activation of people who might be otherwise dormant or not excited about Joe Biden.”

According to AJPP, only 1.8% of American adults identify as Jewish. Conscious of the fact that Jewish voters make up a small segment of the national electorate, the group is placing a particular emphasis on key swing states with proportionally higher Jewish populations, such as Florida (3.1% of adults) and Pennsylvania (2.1%).

Though its key constituencies are teens and 20-somethings, Jews 4 Joe’s website emphasizes that it also seeks to “bridge the generational divide between young and senior voters.” Or, as Wolf puts it, encouraging young Jews to “make sure their grandparents are voting.”

“The Jewish community is one of networks,” Wolf said. “If we get young folks to call their grandparents [and] get them to register to vote… we’re going to be doing a lot of successful work.”

Kevin Walling, Democratic strategist and vice president of the digital team at Hamburger Gibson Creative. (Courtesy)

Kevin Walling, a Democratic strategist and vice president of the digital team at Hamburger Gibson Creative, a political communications firm, attested to the value of this approach, calling it “more [effective] than any TV ad or digital ad.”

“We know that the most effective persuasion tool between voters is a trusted friend, family member or coworker,” explained Walling, 35. “If you have that trusted source that endorses a candidate or a cause, that’s the most compelling reason for a voter to switch their mind or to turn out [to vote].”

After a primary race that saw 20 candidates participate in its first debate in June 2019, part of Jews 4 Joe’s mission is to unite young Democrats from the progressive and moderate factions of the party — and everything in between.

“Our narrative is not so much focused on ideology — it’s more focused on the importance of this election, getting out the vote, and making sure it’s for Joe [Biden],” Wolf said. He added that the group tries to “be as inclusive of a space as [it] can be, while still holding true to our core identity as Jewish individuals.”

A virtual event on racism in the US, hosted by Jews 4 Joe. (Courtesy)

Other factors may have also lessened intra-party divisions. Gordon explained that the COVID-19 pandemic and protests over racial injustice and police brutality have inspired Americans “to put aside their personal positions for individual candidates and coalesce around Joe Biden in a way that I don’t think would have been possible five months ago.”

Outreach coordinator Baer was previously a volunteer coordinator on former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and communications staffer on former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2020 campaign. She highlighted climate change, gun control and racial equality as issues of particular importance to young Jews, and ones that Biden is well-positioned to address.

“Biden’s nuanced approach is most aligned with what young Jews want to see,” Baer said, noting that it is rare for young Jews to be one-issue voters.

Against the national backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and social justice protests, many young American Jews are placing importance on a wider variety of political and socioeconomic issues, a feeling shared by Avi Mendelson, a 25-year-old from West Bloomfield, Michigan. While participating in a year-long fellowship in Israel, Mendelson returned to the US in March at the onset of the pandemic and soon began volunteering with Jews 4 Joe.

A Jews 4 Joe flier featuring Joe Biden. (Courtesy)

“I would hope that there’s also this recognition of ‘Okay, it’s not just one specific issue to be focusing on [in this election],’” Mendelson said. “I will always be concerned about Israel and anti-Semitism and issues specific to the Jewish community, but I’m feeling very concerned about issues to American society as a whole. COVID is impacting everyone and it’s the result of a lack of leadership and someone who just doesn’t care about anyone except for himself.”

At the same time, Jews 4 Joe still does view Biden as the candidate best-equipped for handling issues such as anti-Semitism and Israel that have been traditionally important to American Jews.

I will always be concerned about Israel and anti-Semitism and issues specific to the Jewish community, but I’m feeling very concerned about issues to American society as a whole

“[Biden] will call out anti-Semitism on both the left and the right, which is really impressive,” Wolf said. “Sometimes the Jewish people feel like they’re being torn between parties. Joe Biden doesn’t do that. We’re not a political football, he doesn’t see us that way.”

With regard to Israel, Wolf pointed to Biden’s “40-year track record” of advocating for Israel, his role in securing $3.8 billion a year in American aid for Israeli defense, his refusal to condition that aid on settlement activity and potential annexation, and his commitment to keeping the US embassy in Jerusalem, as evidence of Biden’s “staunch support” for the Jewish state.

Illustrative: US Vice President Mike Pence, left, hosts PM Netanyahu at the US Embassy in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Trump’s supporters often highlight the decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem and the president’s rapport with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as evidence of his support for Israel. But exit polls in the 2018 congressional elections indicate that Jewish voters may not be swayed by the president’s gestures toward Israel. In the 2016 presidential elections, 71% of American Jews voted for the Democratic slate in 2016. Two years later, during the 2018 midterms, 79% voted for Democratic candidates, an increase which Walling characterized as the “largest jump of any core constituency of the Democratic party.”

Yael Sternberg, a 22-year-old rising senior at George Washington University studying international affairs, sees the politicization of Israel within American politics as more of a generational issue.

“Older Jews as a whole are concerned that Israel is becoming a partisan issue because it didn’t used to be like that,” Sternberg said. “Sometimes I worry that they’re feeding into the divide that Republicans try to make [when they say], ‘If you’re pro-Israel, vote Republican.’”

Across its various platforms, Jews 4 Joe emphasizes Jewish values and history as a driving force behind its alliances with other ethnic and religious communities. On its website, the group cites tikkun olam (Hebrew for “repairing the world”) as a key tenet of the Biden campaign. In a post commemorating the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, targeting Hispanic Americans, the group quoted the phrase bakesh shalom uradfeihu (“seek peace and pursue it”) from the Book of Psalms.

El Paso Strong.

פורסם על ידי ‏‎Jews 4 Joe‎‏ ב- יום שני, 3 באוגוסט 2020

“The Jewish people know what it means to have been marginalized,” Wolf said. “When we see injustice in the world, when we see wrongdoing, when we see racism, xenophobia, misogyny — all of which have been embellished by this president — we have a moral obligation to stand up and fight against it.”

Sternberg, who is not working with Jews 4 Joe but intends to vote for Biden in the upcoming election, agreed with the group’s emphasis on getting politically apathetic voters to the ballot box. However, she interprets the values-based argument for voting for the former vice president in a slightly different light.

The Jewish people know what it means to have been marginalized

“Most people when they say ‘Joe Biden stands for Jewish values,’ it doesn’t mean that Joe Biden stands specifically for the Jews,” she said. “It’s just that Jewish values are moral values, and it’s really hard to make the argument that Trump stands for moral values.”

While Jewish values act as a guiding principle for its efforts, the group also recognizes the challenges which many liberal Jews face in certain circles of Democratic politics. Gordon believes that a vital component of Jews 4 Joe’s work is to reach out to young Jews who might feel alienated due to their support for Israel. She said that Israel is an issue which can be “really divisive” and can often “exile young progressive Jews from spaces that they would otherwise be a part of.”

“[We need to reach] out to young progressives who oftentimes find it difficult to reconcile their progressive identity with their Jewish identity,” Gordon said. “Jews are often excluded from progressive spaces on the basis of their affiliation with or their support of the State of Israel. We’re hoping to empower those students and let them know that they can be progressive and they can also support the State of Israel.”

Third from right: Sarah Gordon, co-director of Jews 4 Joe’s college outreach team. (Courtesy)

This message is being shared almost exclusively online, as Jews 4 Joe and other political bodies find ways to accommodate the limitations posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet Gordon views the transition to virtual events and increased phone banking in place of door-to-door canvassing as opportunities for increased engagement, showing “that it’s very easy to be politically active.”

“Coronavirus and virtual grassroots organizing has presented us with a profound opportunity to capitalize on technology and the ease with which we can get people to events [and] phone bank,” Gordon said. “People see that they can do it right from their bedroom.”

To analyst Walling, online political canvassing isn’t just chalked up to the ongoing pandemic, but is a part of a natural progression in the technological age. He pointed to president Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign as a watershed moment for shifting from “offline to online engagement” and to Trump’s 2016 campaign spending more than $70 million on Facebook ads alone, as well as the changing nature of messaging used in online spaces.

“The vast majority of spending for secretary Clinton [in 2016] was on negative persuasion against Donald Trump,” Walling said. “What you’re seeing out of the Biden campaign now that we’re less than 100 days away is a lot more positive persuasion.”

This photo combo of images shows, clockwise, from upper left: US President Donald Trump speaking during a news conference at the White House on July 22, 2020, in Washington, the Twitter app, Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaking during a campaign event on July 14, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware, and the Facebook app (AP Photo)

With three months until the November 3 Election Day, Jews 4 Joe is ramping up its efforts to engage young American Jews through its virtual speaker series, social media outreach and phone banking events.

Gordon hopes to recruit a Jews 4 Joe campus ambassador “on every campus in the US with a significant Jewish population, even as many universities roll out plans to operate remotely for the fall semester.”

Baer says that one of her goals is to get voters to “not just vote for Joe [Biden], but be engaged and active.” To Wolf, one of his group’s greatest priorities is making sure young American Jews simply vote in the first place in what many see as a pivotal election.

“We have to talk about the importance of this election in order to move forward,” Wolf said. “Their voices are not heard if they don’t vote.”

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