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CPAC: Conservatism as a Jewish Value

The small group of American Jews who see CPAC as their home


As the coronavirus spreads, the world seems to be in panic mode. Media features wall-to-wall coverage of a virus 20 times more lethal than the common flu, as air travelers wear surgical masks on international flights.

In the political realm, meanwhile, with Joe Biden’s huge win in South Carolina, Democrats fret the battle brewing between the center-left and the progressive wings of their party. Biden is a weak front-runner, and although polls show Bernie Sanders beating Trump in a one-on-one matchup, his socialism might make him unpalatable to coveted swing voters.

But within the walls of the towering Gaylord National Resort in Northern Virginia last week, attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) looked contented and relaxed. They are wild about Trump, and confident he will be reelected. The slogan for the largest annual gathering of conservatives was “America versus Socialism,” a stark but telling indicator of Republicans’ state of mind. After four years of America First, a booming economy, and a war against the media, conservatives are in no mood to relinquish the gains Donald Trump has brought them.

I came to the conference to gauge the enthusiasm of the reddest of the red base, but also to meet the small group of American Jews who see CPAC as their home. Men with kippahs were to be found everywhere. Some were students, but many others were political activists who see conservatism as the natural expression of their Yiddishkeit.

Truth be told, Jews are accepted warmly at CPAC. It’s no secret that many Evangelical Christians, the CPAC base, are both dedicated Republicans and lovers of the Jewish People. I found myself greeted by warm smiles and serious questions: Why is it that so many of your brethren vote Democratic? Is it true what they say about Israel?

Rabbi Yitzchok Tendler, the executive director of Young Jewish Conservatives, has been attending CPAC since 2011. A decade ago he was a kiruv rabbi at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem. Politically minded, he noticed that many of the young Jewish students who showed up at Aish held conservative political views but felt they had no home in the wider Jewish community.

That year, he attended CPAC with 30 Jewish students. Last weekend, he held a shabbaton —featuring radio personality Mark Levin — with 250. For Tendler, conservatism and Judaism go hand in hand.

“Our primary goal is to strengthen the dual political and Jewish identities of young Jews who are politically conservative,” he said in an interview. Toward that end, his group tries to cultivate the careers of young conservative Jews, and today many of his core members have important positions in the Trump administration.

No less important, Tendler said, is that many of these young Jews can frame their most deeply held political beliefs in Jewish terms. Because Evangelical Christians are so prominent in the conservative movement, he explained, in the past some Jews gravitated toward Christianity as a way to express their values. At the shabbaton, Tendler and his staff are careful to explain Jewish rituals and make them relevant for an audience who may know little about their own tradition.

At the same time, over the years so many religious Jews have joined the group that today there is a regular minyan and kosher food at the CPAC conference.

“We’ve been extremely gratified that a lot of the participants have come a lot closer to Yiddishkeit,” said Tendler, who is also executive director of Beth Jacob in Atlanta, that city’s largest Orthodox congregation. “We have crazy stories of people who we found on the far fringes of the Jewish community.”

It helps that the Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC, sees support of Israel, family values, and religious freedom as core issues. “The executive director of CPAC told me personally that that one of the greatest accomplishments of his life was pushing a secular Israeli student, his roommate, to find out more about his heritage. The leadership are genuine friends of the Jewish People.”

 (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 801)

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