Elizabeth Pipko grew up hearing how lucky she is to be an American.
The adults would tell her, “You have no idea what your parents and grandparents went through, coming here with no money.”
Her grandfather was a famous portrait artist in Soviet Russia who wasn’t allowed to paint religious works. Her mother remembers children traded for grain because no one had anything. Her grandmother would show her photos of concentration camps during the Holocaust and tell her stories about Jews who managed to keep their faith in the face of such hell. Her father was homeless for several years when he first came to America because he had nothing, and he too would tell Pipko and her brother they were lucky.
Pipko, her younger brother, and their two cousins are first-generation Americans; their parents and grandparents are Jewish immigrants and refugees who braved dire circumstances to come to America when they had absolutely nothing. Among all the liberties they sought, the most important one, prized above all, was religious freedom.
“It was always important to me why they came here. You don’t risk your life and risk everything and leave a lot of your family members just to come to America,” she said. “They all came here to get to be themselves and get to be free and get to be Jewish—something that’s not really allowed, even still, in a lot of countries.”
Knowing her family story, Pipko has always been not just grateful to practice her religion, but adamant in protecting that right.
“I hope everyone realizes how lucky we are to be here and how terrifying the rise of anti-Semitism is,” Pipko said.
In responding to anti-Semitic and anti-Israel comments from Democratic politicians earlier this year, Pipko unintentionally became the leader of a movement.
Votes Taken for Granted
“Growing up in New York City, as a Jew, as a woman … people would assume that I was liberal, very, very to the left,” Pipko said.
She had that experience in conversations even before the madness that was the 2016 elections, before Donald Trump came onto the political scene. But it was after the backlash after she publicly announced her support for the president that Pipko started looking at the numbers. Midterm exit polls show Jews overwhelmingly voted Democratic, at around 70 percent.
It’s not surprising that Jewish voters have been Democrats, Pipko said, with President Harry Truman recognizing Israel and President Lyndon Johnson adding his support. But there’s no reason to keep supporting a party that has forsaken your interests, she tells Jewish voters today.
“Anyone can make a decision for themselves. That’s what America is,” Pipko said.
“If we’re not supported by a party anymore, you can’t continue voting for them,” she said. “No vote should ever be taken for granted.”
The Exodus movement, which started as just a tweet, has now been registered as a nonprofit and a super PAC. Since it was founded in March, the organization has expanded from a dozen chapters to 20 nationwide. Pipko has found her footing, and has a clear vision of where she wants the organization to go.
“I didn’t expect, honestly, anything to come from it. I didn’t think at 24 years old, I’d be running this huge organization,” Pipko said.
A lot has been achieved on social media, but Pipko wants to move onto college campuses and into real meetings with real people. It’s not about convincing Jewish people to leave the Democrat Party full stop, it’s “about being a support system for American Jews everywhere, no matter what side they’re on.”
“It’s a political organization that they know they can come to the see which candidates actually support what they support,” Pipko said. She envisions it lasting well past 2020.
“I would love to spend more time one-on-one with Americans literally everywhere, anytime that I can, just talking, because I think that America is way better than where we are right now,” Pipko said. “That’s how I thought about it when I was little, and that’s all I always think about America.”
It Started With Trump
Pipko was a professional model when she came out as not just a Trump supporter, but a member of his 2016 campaign staff early this year. (She’s since left to focus on her organization.)
Her husband, who she married at Mar-a-Lago last December, was still a full-time campaign staffer and she had become sick of hearing people in her industry say vile and hateful things about the people who worked with Trump.
“It was just really hard to hear people say how evil everyone you know, his staff was, how evil he is, how evil his supporters are, knowing that I met some of the greatest [people] I’ve ever known literally on that campaign … knowing that certain things that are said about him just aren’t true,” she said.
“I knew that the fact that I was scared, that meant that so many other people were so scared.”
While working as a model and a full-time campaign staffer, she would hide her badge while out in the city, afraid to tell a soul because she knew it would destroy her career. Predictably, many in the industry stopped talking to her after the news broke, but for Pipko, the world was bigger than just her current career.
It didn’t mean she wasn’t terrified to make that announcement. Pipko remembers conferring with her brother—”he’s the smartest person in the world”—and saying if he said she should do it, she would do it. She then called a New York Post reporter, told her story, and was interviewed on Fox and Friends the next day.
What shocked her wasn’t the hate mail or disgusting comments, it was the long and emotional positive messages that complete strangers wrote in.
“I got paragraphs and paragraphs on email, Instagram, DMs on Twitter, mail to my house, everything from people telling me literally they were terrified to tell even their own family members who they voted for; there were people telling me that their husbands or wives don’t know who they voted for, which I thought was crazy,” Pipko said.
And they said she was brave, which Pipko understands, but thinks it is crazy that this is the America we have today.
“The fact that these people were so inspired and so terrified to admit what I admitted just meant, you know, this country is in some kind of a dark period. That’s just clear,” Pipko said.
Pipko is a trained figure skater.
At age 10, on a trip to Florida, she fell in love with the sport and knew right away who she wanted as a coach.
Her mom believed in her, packing up the home and family and moving to Florida from New York City to support her dream. Pipko had started late as a competitive skater, and trained all day every day while attending online school where she could take more electives and advanced classes than she would have otherwise.
At age 16, she suffered a debilitating ankle injury “and was told I’d never walk properly again,” she said.
The modeling career had come out of nowhere and at the perfect time, when she was 17 in New York City. She was sitting in a park when she was photographed, and Pipko was scouted and became a Wilhelmina model. Depressed because of the loss of skating and now in a city with few friends, modeling gave her a much-needed confidence boost. She’d spent her adolescence training alone on ice, and now had a completely different body. Pipko says if modeling hadn’t happened, she would still be that anxious little girl.
When she chose speaking out about her beliefs over her career, she thought it was because the opportunities would be closed to her now. But Pipko was recently just featured in an eight-page magazine spread, working with a photographer who had done photoshoots with her before.
“I dreamed about it when I was little like so many little girls, and I’d got to do it for so long, and left off with a lot of good memories of a lot of good people, to be able to work with one of them again just meant a lot to me,” Pipko said.
All of what drives Pipko are traits she received from her family.
“My mom, she taught me to literally shoot for any dream possible. My dad taught me to think and to rationalize and to be the person that I am when I attempt any problem or challenge in my life,” Pipko said. In addition to her parents, her younger brother and her husband, who she met as a campaign staffer, comprise her support system. Her brother is her best friend and confidant, who she trusts with her life.
“They’re the reason I succeed,” Pipko said.
Pipko adds that her father’s side of the family has many lawyers and bookish professions, and her mother’s side is full of artists, herself being a concert pianist.
“My mom, she’s incredible … when I was little, she tore her arm completely. So I think she’s had 11 surgeries between her elbow in her shoulder and her arm and she’s still performing,” Pipko said. Just last year, she performed at the White House not long after a painful surgery.
“She’s literally the strongest human you’ll ever meet in your whole life,” Pipko said. “And it would just be disrespectful on my part to watch her go what she goes through, and not do the same.”
Seeing Trump campaign and win as an underdog further cemented the values that Pipko inherited. She had worked on a small but dedicated staff where she learned that heart and hard work meant everything. She still remembers the turnaround they witnessed election night, in a room that just felt electric.
She was inputting data at 8 p.m., when she texted her mom that things didn’t look good. Not two hours later, she was saying “Mom, we won the election, get dressed, get ready, we’re going to celebrate.”
Pipko had started out as a volunteer because the campaign was in her own backyard and would provide unparalleled experience leading into the first election in which she could vote. Not 48 hours after making some suggestions to a coordinator, they hired her for a full-time position.
“To end up at 21 years old as full-time staff not just on a presidential campaign, but one of the most controversial and crazy in history, and one that ended up winning, honestly is something that hasn’t hit me yet,” she said. Pipko has recently compiled her story into what will eventually be published as a memoir of her time on the campaign.
She thinks there’s a lesson for everyone, whether they agree with Trump’s policies or not.
“No candidate was ever treated like he was,” she said. People on both sides, everyone from friends to foreign leaders treated his campaign as a joke. But he kept on “with his head held high and all the confidence in the world. I mean, that’s inspiring for anyone; if you can’t draw inspiration from that, that’s, you know, that’s a problem. That’s a huge inspiration.”
Pipko says with the grandparents she has, of course she was told growing up she couldn’t be scared of anything, but they’re not just pretty words.
“I’m getting swastikas mailed to my house, or I’m seeing comments that I deserve to be raped and killed,” she said. “If you believe in what you believe in and you know what you stand for, you just have to keep going. You go with God. With encouragement from your family.”
These are lessons she wants to share with other young people, because too many Americans are letting others make their decisions for them, she says. Pipko has been working on a book to tell her story, and her family’s, and though it’s been more work than she realized, it’s been therapeutic.
“Decide what you believe in,” she said. And then even if others disagree, she added, understand that they have the right to do so, and that it’s because they believe they are morally doing the right thing.
“You should be able to have friends and have family and have colleagues that disagree and are good people,” Pipko said. “So let’s start there.”