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America Decides 2004 Motivated to Effect Change, Young Jews Volunteer for Campaigns

July 30, 2004
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Two weeks ago, Richard Rosenthal was a successful lawyer in Miami with a six-figure salary and a nice view of Biscayne Bay from his office. This week he’s in Washington licking envelopes in the presidential campaign headquarters of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), and making no money.

“You can have a large role in things that don’t matter, or you can have a tiny role in things that do,” said Rosenthal, 31. “Right now, I’ve traded one for another.”

Rosenthal planned to leave his job at the County Attorney’s Office this summer to start his own appellate practice, but wanted to take a detour first. He considered a trip to Australia but then signed on as a volunteer with the Kerry campaign, packed up his car and moved to the nation’s capital through November.

He was in his car again Wednesday. At noon, he was told he could have a ticket to the Democratic convention that night, so he started driving to Boston, arriving shortly before Se! n. John Edwards (D-N.C.) accepted the vice presidential nomination.

Rosenthal’s pass gave him access to the building but didn’t provide him with a seat. He finagled a chair in the nosebleed section, claiming he was returning to a seat he had left.

“Twenty years from now, I’m not going to think about the paychecks I didn’t get or the 15 weeks I wasn’t setting up my law practice,” he said. “But I’ll remember what I’m doing now.”

He’s not alone. As the Democrats met in Boston this week for their nominating convention, the cubicles and makeshift offices of Democratic campaigns and activist groups are filled with young people, including many Jews, who have taken time off to work on campaigns in hopes of making a difference.

Certainly, young Democrats aren’t the only ones gearing up for a fight this November; Republicans also have their share of committed young volunteers. But Republican control of the White House and Congress has added momentum to a surge of youn! g Democrats wanting to get involved.

Energetic youth working on the campaign trail is nothing new. But what makes this crop of volunteers and staffers different is that not all are political junkies.

Fueled by concern over the state of the nation, young Jewish activists who were on different career paths have taken a respite from their real lives to hit the streets.

They’re concerned about the war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, terrorism and civil liberties — and they want to be part of the solution.

“I kind of thought that if I didn’t do something, I would regret it,” said Aaron Friedman, a Milwaukee organizer for the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental political group.

Friedman, 26, was a classical composer in New York City and was rather apolitical until shortly after Bush took office, when he began getting nervous about the country’s direction.

He was supposed to spend this year studying at Columbia University with a composer of spectral music. Instead, Friedman is organizing volunteers to to! ut environment-friendly candidates and issues.

“There’s nothing I would rather be doing than writing chamber music that 200 people in the world might care about,” he said. “But there’s some point where I realized that the world is revolving outside my own life and I would feel so silly if Bush won, we started three wars or global warming took hold.”

Many of the temporary politicos say they are getting the same things out of the experience as do colleagues who are in it for the long haul, such as leadership and communication skills.

For example, Friedman, who describes himself as something of a recluse, said talking to voters all day has made it easier for him to talk to girls in bars at night.

“That was a situation that would have paralyzed me in the past,” he said.

But life experience is still secondary to the cause, they say.

“I grew up in a very strong Jewish community with a sense that you treat people with respect and you respect your neighbor,” ! said Matthew Slutsky of Massachusetts. “That doesn’t feel like the way we’re living now. It’s against what I grew up with and the culture I was surrounded by.”

Slutsky, 23, was motivated to find a job in the Kerry campaign after taking a class last year at Northeastern University with a former Democratic presidential nominee from Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis. Dukakis stressed the importance of public service, a message that resonated with Slutsky, who was unsure about his career path.

Now he’s at the Democratic convention, arranging surrogates to speak to the media from a hotel room nearby. His twin brother also was bitten by the political bug: He’s organizing voters in the swing state of Oregon.

Slutsky says he was motivated by what he heard about the United States on recent visits to Europe.

“To meet people and hear them saying things about America I know are not true shows me we need to restore respect from the world,” he said.

Ann Lewis, who served as White House communications director under President Clinton, said she! receives numerous calls from friends, predominantly Jewish, who want help finding jobs on Kerry’s campaign for their children and grandchildren.

“The biggest favor I can do is to get them a job with incredibly long hours, very little pay, sleeping on a couch and no job security,” Lewis said.

Young people understand that the stakes are high in this election, Lewis said. More significantly, she said, the Florida recount in 2000 proved that every individual makes a difference.

Rosenthal worked as a legal advisor during that recount, sitting to the side of the men and women reviewing hanging and dangling chads. The experience moved him, and helped motivate him to explore what he calls “the road not traveled.”

“People were saying in 2000 that it doesn’t make a difference,” he said. “We know that’s not the case now. Anyone with two eyes can see the difference that politics make.”

Not all activists have quit their jobs to get involved.

During the week, Merr! ill Zack is a staffer for the National Council for Jewish Women. But i t was her Sunday mornings that launched her political activism.

Zack and her Sunday brunch friends began talking about political issues, then educated each other on the candidates. Now they’ve formed an advocacy group, The Public Works, and are raising money for Democrats.

“We all just felt we’re all fairly well-read and fairly progressive and we wanted to do more in a group,” said Zack, 32.

In less than two months, Zack and her peers put together a fund-raising concert, netting $13,000 for the Kerry campaign and several political action committees.

Zack says she wants to put someone new in the White House, but in any case believes the strong feelings against the Bush administration have brought her generation together.

“I hope there are major changes in the months to come,” she said. “But even if that doesn’t happen, I feel like a movement has started.”

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