Update (11/25/2019): This article has been updated to correct a quote and to clarify Effy Gittler’s role in the organization.
What does it mean to be young, Jewish and conservative?
That’s the question Grant Schmidt wants to answer with the new Philadelphia chapter of the Young Jewish Conservatives, a national organization that aims “to empower politically conservative young Jews, providing them with the tools to defend their values and advocate for conservative causes,” according to their Facebook page.
Each local event will have intellectual, emotional and physical components, said Schmidt, who helped start the local chapter. Each will also give a featured person the opportunity to answer the question of what it means to be young, Jewish and conservative.
Schmidt was the first featured person at the local chapter’s kickoff event, which took place on Nov. 17 at the Philadelphia Ethical Society in Rittenhouse Square. Schmidt said his conservatism comes from his beliefs in the sanctity of life and the defense of life, beliefs he said have roots in the Torah.
“I view it as a very Jewish thing to be a protector of others, and to be able to teach others how to protect themselves and how to protect others,” he said. “It’s an incredible feeling for me, an incredible mitzvah.”
Attendees participated in two activities during the kickoff event.
In one room, two veterans, Perry “Johnny” Levine and Constance C. Cotton, gave a presentation. Levine, who served in the Navy during the ‘60s, spoke about the history of Jewish veterans and the work of Jewish War Veterans. Schmidt said the group wanted to focus on veterans because of the kickoff’s proximity to Veterans Day.
Schmidt led the other activity in a second room. He is the founder of the firearm simulation technology company Shot Tec LLC, and attendees had the opportunity to try out the simulation.
First, Schmidt taught attendees the rules of firearm safety. Then, they used replica guns to “shoot” at different projections on a screen, in a similar way to a Wii. These projections could be of standard targets, like at a firing range. They could also be of scenarios, either fictional ones — like shooting at zombies or a rogue drone in a lab — or ones with real-life applications — like taking down a school shooter. There was also one projection that took place in a gun range, where different people slid into view. In the last scenario, in order to win, participants needed to shoot the people holding guns while avoiding the people holding harmless things like food.
The point of these events is to share ideals and values, Schmidt said, so despite its name, the group is open to everyone.
“A lot of the time, it’s not (about) policy positions,” Schmidt said. “It’s not, are you pro-Trump or anti-Trump or anything like that. It’s a value. It’s speaking to a specific value, whether it’s charitable work, whether it be freedom of religion, freedom of expression, taking care of the family, the family unit, that kind of thing. It’s different for everybody. That’s why we want it to be a place of expression and hearing new ideas and thinking through things and talking through things.
“It’s going to be weird to say it’s a safe space, but that’s the idea.”
Young Jewish conservatives often feel alone in the community. So Schmidt and some others decided they wanted to have a meetup where conservatives could discuss their political ideas and not worry about offending or upsetting anyone. Effy Gittler, a modern Orthodox nurse who had recently moved from Cherry Hill and founder of the group, suggested that they start up a local chapter of Young Jewish Conservatives.
“The reason I don’t follow a left-leaning or liberal view of things is that I don’t believe government of big institutions can solve most problems,” Gittler said. “It needs to be us helping each other.”
According to the American Jewish Population Project released by Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute earlier this year, 42.2% of American Jews are liberal. That’s more than double the 20.4% of American Jews are conservative.
Within Philadelphia city limits, conservatives might especially feel outnumbered. More than 815,000 Philadelphians are registered Democrats, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State, compared to the more than 118,000 who are registered Republicans.
“A lot of young, conservative Jews believe they’re alone,” Gittler said. “No one else who is Jewish, who’s young, feels the same way as them, that they’re social outcasts if they verbalize. That’s the problem. My friends told me, ‘I don’t want any pictures. I’m coming to this event because I’d be a pariah among my coworkers.’ That’s a problem. My goal with this event, as least initially, it to show that there are other people who feel the same way as you who are young Jews.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0729