By Daniel Schere
Joel Wanger (right) says working for progressive candidates such as Hillary Clinton is an important way to “live” his Judaism. (Provided)
It was the deep-seated Jewish values of social justice that spurred Crofton, Md., native Joel Wanger to become involved in politics. Wanger “fell in love” with the campaign lifestyle while in college at Northeastern University in Boston, he said, prompting him to apply for the Israel Government Fellows program that is run by Masa Israel.
“The thing that stuck with me the most about that experience was what it means to be an American Jew versus a Jew from anywhere else in the world,” he said.
Wanger’s fellowship involved work with the Israeli Presidential Conference, including assisting different speakers with position papers.
“The theme of the conference was ‘Tomorrow,’ and it was all about the tomorrow of the world, the tomorrow of the people and the tomorrow of Israel,” he said.
“I was really able to see some of the differences and the starkness between being an American Jew and a Russian Jew, a Spanish Jew and seeing what those opportunities are.”
Wanger said his passion for tikkun olam started well before this point. He became familiar with social justice work through attending Camp Harlem in Pennsylvania as a child through his teen years as well as his involvement with his synagogue youth group in Bowie, Md.
After finishing the fellowship program in 2012, Wanger spent the next few months figuring out what he wanted to do next. It was during an interview with progressive organization Democratic GAIN that he was asked if he would be interested in submitting his resume to President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. He accepted and was placed in Las Vegas as a field organizer.
Wanger said that as soon as the 2012 election ended he began anticipating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s launch for a 2016 presidential bid, and when she made her campaign announcement last year, he wasted no time in getting involved.
“I actually arrived in Nevada on April 13, 2015, which was the day that she announced, and one of the opportunities that I wanted to pursue in getting out here that early was that Las Vegas really does have a large Jewish community,” he said. “As Jewish Americans, we share values with Clinton. Her fights are our fights, and it’s not just about donating money, it’s about our shared values and getting involved in the campaign in a more concrete way.”
Wanger, 27, said several other millennials have become involved with the Clinton campaign in Nevada, thanks to the use of Twitter as a recruitment tool. He said social media has been a much greater force in this campaign than it was while he was working for the Ohio Democratic Party in 2014. People his age who support Clinton do so because she has been a “fighter” for the middle class, he said, which is a quality that is personal to him.
“As a millennial, whether it’s women’s reproductive health or raising the minimum wage, these are all issues that I care about,” he said. “Not just as a citizen, but as somebody who was in college during the financial crisis and saw the job market go down. These are things that are important to me.”
Wanger drew a sharp distinction between the proposal of Clinton to make college debt free and that of the tuition-free concept put forth by Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “The new college compact that Hillary Clinton has proposed really focuses on the idea of making sure you can graduate college debt free,” he said. “Because while it would be amazing to have everyone go to college for free, I agree with Clinton when she says Donald Trump’s children probably don’t need to go to college for free.”
Wanger said he feels “confident” that Clinton will emerge victorious in the Nevada caucus on Feb. 20. Much of his work in the campaign has focused on organizing the group Jewish Americans for Hillary, which he launched in August. This involves identifying “captains” at the different synagogues in Las Vegas and organizing house parties as a means of engaging people from across all age groups. Wanger said he feels this is the role he sees for himself when it comes to giving back.
“I could live my Judaism not by making aliyah or by being kosher or being shomer Shabbos,” he said, “but by working in progressive politics for candidates like President Barack Obama, like Hillary Clinton, who are fighting to make the world a better place, who are fighting to repair the world.” JT
Originally published in the Baltimore Jewish Times.