Jewish students react to debate at Washington U.

Washington University students watch the debate Sunday night at Hillel. Photo: Eric Berger

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

A couple hours before the recent presidential debate Sunday night, Washington University student Paul Felder stood outside near a Fox News television set, wearing a Fox News T-shirt. Felder, who is president of Washington University Students for Israel, has been an “ardent” supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, he said. 

That is, until Friday, when a video surfaced of Trump describing in graphic manner how he forces himself onto women.   

The leak caused Felder, a premed student who was raised as a Conservative Jew, to reconsider his vote  just a few days before the debate in St. Louis. He said he planned to watch the debate and then formulate an opinion on Monday. 

In the meantime, he and another student walked around campus carrying an Israeli flag.  

The debate served as an opportunity not only for Trump and Democratic presidential candidate HIllary Clinton to try and convince voters, but also for Wash U students to get a live look at this bizarre election.  

“I’m excited to have the debate here,” said Felder, who is from Tampa, Fla. “I think it’s opened up an opportunity to have more discussion and hear more open opinions, which kind of seem to be devoid on college campuses; there’s a lot of groupthink usually.” 

That groupthink would come from a student body that has a significant number of Jewish students. Among Wash U students, 1,750 (or 24 percent) are Jewish, according to a 2015 guide from Hillel, the Jewish campus organization. And only 19 percent of Jews in the United States support Trump, according to an American Jewish Committee poll in September. 

In short, it was difficult to find Trump supporters on campus. Even the College Republicans have announced they are not endorsing Trump and before the debate had a sign at a fair that read, “Trump scares us too.” 

Felder said that aside from the friend who was carrying the other half of the Israeli flag, he knows only one Trump supporter. But he thinks there are others who supported Trump, at least before the video leak.  

“There are people who don’t want to be public about it because 99 percent of students are not,” said Felder, 20.  

College Republicans President Ruben Schukit is not among those closeted Trump supporters. In fact, he describes his campus group as ahead of the curve compared to other Republicans who only recently announced that they are not supporting their party’s nominee. 

“Very few of us backed Trump during the primary and very few of us took his candidacy very seriously, so it was natural that when he received nomination, we decided not to endorse him,” said Schukit, a 20-year-old junior from Indianapolis who grew up in the Conservative stream of Judaism. 

Despite his lack of enthusiasm about either candidate, Schukit appreciated the preparations that went into the debate. He said he volunteered inside the debate hall before the event and that it made him appreciate “the lengths we go to to have discourse and discussion.” 

He also noticed more students reading newspapers in the library “which is something you don’t usually see.” 

But once Schukit, a computer science major, started watching the debate from the campus Hillel, he just felt like he was “watching it remotely like the rest of the nation.” 

“It’s the events leading up to the debate that made it totally worth it” for Wash U to host the debate, he said. “The debate itself is not the crown jewel.” 

His counterpart on the Democratic side, Jimmy Loomis, who is also Jewish, was closer to the action. He watched the debate from “Spin Alley,” inside the hall, among members of the media and surrogates for the campaigns.  

Loomis, president of the College Democrats, volunteered for the Clinton campaign and walked around with U.S. Rep William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., holding a sign to help reporters identify the congressman. 

“It really is like the Super Bowl for me. Being around all these people who make the news and set policy everyday is really special,” said Loomis, who grew up in St. Louis attending Temple Israel.  

Unlike the acrimonious disagreements between Republicans and Democrats elsewhere, Loomis said the college students from both groups have managed to keep it civil.  

“We really wanted to be the adults in the room,” said Loomis, a senior studying political science and Mandarin Chinese. 

Hannah Woolf was representing Leaders in Interpersonal Violence Education (LIVE) at the debate fair, where campus groups set up displays. The organization hosts a play and discussion for incoming freshman that focuses on the issues and ambiguities of campus sexual assault, and a Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April each year. 

“I got involved with that group personally because I’m really passionate about stopping sexual violence on campus and preventing rape culture. With the release of the Trump tapes and from his past statements, we see that Donald Trump is actually a perpetuator of rape culture,” said Woolf, a senior studying biology and English. 

“It’s been a very strange year in terms of what Trump has been saying and the policies he stands for. I never expected him to get this much support but it also motivates me to fight harder against some of the things he has taken a stand on,” added Woolf, a Jewish student from Boston. 

Mark Shyken had already been part of a town hall debate at Wash U. The 52-year-old was an undecided voter during the 2004 election between George W. Bush and John Kerry. 

Shyken was at his home in West County on a Friday night in September when the phone rang. He manages and sells rental properties and was expecting a call from a tenant. But it was from Gallup conducting a poll about the election.  He told the caller that he was again undecided and that, yes, he would be willing to commit to attending the debate. 

Asked how in a metropolitan area of more almost 3 million people he had been selected twice, Shyken said, “probably because I answer the phone.” 

Shyken was asked to submit two questions. Debate moderators Anderson Cooper, of CNN, and Martha Raddatz, of ABC News, then selected one of the queries. But heading into the debate, none of the audience members knew if he or she would be called upon. 

“I’m comfortable speaking in front of people but I was nervous,” Shyken said. 

His question:  “I am a small business owner. I make a living dealing with low-income housing, and it’s getting more and more dangerous to go into the neighborhoods” in north St. Louis County where he works. “What do they intend to do to make those neighborhoods safe for tenants, my staff and myself?” 

If that question doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because Shyken didn’t get to ask it. He also didn’t get to ask a question during the 2004 debate. 

After the debate, Shyken said he had decided who he would vote for, but declined to share. Still, he did offer some compliments about Clinton. 

“After the debate, Hillary was very friendly and very easy to approach,” said Shyken, who attends Shir Haddash Reconstructionist Community. “She asked me if I was nervous and if I had ever done anything like that before and I said, ‘Yes, in 2004.’ ” 

Felder, the president of the Students for Israel chapter, watched the debate at Edison Theatre among hundreds of other students. He felt that “most people were just waiting to hear these insults from both sides.” 

“The only people who were actually listening to the debate were the people supporting Trump,” he said. 

Despite his distaste for Trump’s recent comments, he still appreciates that the candidate fights “against political correctness. I think it’s an affront to freedom of speech.” 

He also thinks that Trump will be a better friend to Israel than Clinton and do more to fight terrorism and create jobs.