A Mensch's Guide to Campus Activism


Political activism goes hand in hand with Jewish activism

 Adam Palmer 
By Adam Palmer

College is the first time that many people find themselves in a position to vote for elected officials. Jewish students are discovering that political activism is an important part of being a Jew in America.

Jake Velleman said he was not involved in politics in high school, but got involved as soon as he arrived on campus. On his second day at Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin, he saw a flyer advertising internships for the Kerry-Edwards campaign.

He wanted to get involved in the election, so Velleman called the number on the flyer. Just one week later he was setting up a new chapter of College Democrats and hosting John Edwards.

After his freshman year, Velleman transferred to the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where he continued his political activism. During his sophomore year, he went on an AIPAC-led birthright israel trip.

“That was pretty life changing,” Velleman said of the Israel experience. “I got more religiously active and I got very excited about doing pro-Israel work.”

After that trip, he did more work with AIPAC, and is currently interning at their office in Washington D.C. He is also working for the Obama campaign, he said.

Jake Welleman is working on the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama.

University of Maryland junior Mike Rosen agreed that Israel is important to Jewish political activists, but he said Jewish students should be involved in every stream of politics.

“We have a large percentage of Jews going to college and going into the professional world and our opinions vary,” Rosen said. “It’s important for Jews not to get stereotyped into one group.”

Along those lines, Rosen is interested not only in U.S.-Israel relations, but also in the politics surrounding stem cell research, he said.

Rosen said the way some college students approach politics bothers him.

“I think that a lot of college students say, ‘We don’t like George Bush,’ ‘We don’t like this,’ ‘We don’t like that,’ and most of them don’t do anything,” Rosen said. “What’s the point of even bashing the person if you don’t act on your opinion?”

That’s why Rosen worked two-and-a-half days out of the week at a senator’s office in Washington D.C. during his sophomore year. This summer, he had a full-time internship at another senator’s office, he said.

Political activism is important because political issues can affect each person at the individual level, said Syracuse University sophomore Marshall Spevak.

“Most of the issues that are going on right now are going to affect people when they’re out of college: social security, the war in Iraq, health care, students’ loans,” Spevak said. “It’s important to be politically active because the things that are going on in Washington right now, in the long run, are going to affect you.”

Spevak is involved in politics through a number of organizations, including College Democrats, Young Democrats of America (YDA), and the Young Democrats of America Jewish Caucus (YDAJC). He is also director of Students for Barack Obama at Syracuse.

Stephanie Hausner is vice chair of Jewish Outreach for YDAJC, and is also Campus and Programs coordinator for Israel Advocacy Initiative at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. In both positions, she works extensively with politically-involved college students.

She stressed the importance of young people, especially college students, being active in the political process.

“Students do vote, and they do have a voice,” she said. “The more students who speak up, the larger that voice will be and the more impact it will have.”

And there is even more motivation for Jewish college students to get involved in politics, Hausner said.

“It’s kind of inherent in Judaism that Jews are active people. The ideas of social justice and tikkun olam and helping others are major tenets of our religion,” she said. “Politics is a major avenue where people can fulfill those.”

Aaron Keyak, who just graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, added to Hausner’s reasons for Jews to get involved.

“If we look at Jewish history, too often we see that Jews became marginalized by the society that they were involved in,” he said. “As Jews get more involved, we make sure that we as a community are involved in the government and that the issues that are important to us get paid attention to.”

It’s especially important for college students to be politically active, Keyak said.

“It’s an age group that’s underrepresented to the elected officials,” Keyak said of college-age voters.

He also worried that students are not always committed to being active.

“Too often, college students who are at all interested in politics might go out for a day, but that’s not enough,” Keyak said. “You have to stay there, you have to continually work on campaigns and get your voice heard.”

Students who are interested in being politically active should sign up for any political group as soon as they get to campus, Keyak said. It does not have to be a partisan group like the College Democrats or College Republicans, he said. It can be any group that does political work.

“What’s most important is to do stuff that you believe in; that’s the kind of stuff that you’re really going to succeed in,” Keyak said. “Figure out what you like to do, what you feel most passionately about politically, and just go for it.”

Posted: 10/22/2007 08:56:17 AM

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