Rabbi David Straus believes voting is a nonpartisan issue.
“If you believe in democracy, how can you not believe that we need to do everything we can to make sure that everybody who’s eligible to be registered to vote is registered to vote? And that every vote is counted and that all blocks to voting are taken down so that it becomes possible for everybody to be able to vote?” the senior rabbi at Main Line Reform Temple said.
Straus and his congregation are participating in Every Voice, Every Vote, the Reform Jewish Movement’s 2020 civic engagement campaign. The statewide nonpartisan initiative, which is run by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, aims to mobilize the entire Reform Jewish Movement and encourage all U.S. citizens to exercise their right to vote.
“There are about 40-plus Reform congregations in Pennsylvania. And, depending on whose numbers you listen to, that’s between 10,000 to 12,000 voters,” Straus said.
The campaign has projects in California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. In Pennsylvania, RAC-PA congregations are working with One PA, an organization dedicated to voter engagement. Several Reform congregations in the Philadelphia area are participating.
“It’s been really powerful for our members to be connected to Reform Jews and congregations not just around the Philly area but in other parts of the state,” said Beth Kalisch, senior rabbi at Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne.
The campaign has three main areas of focus: mobilizing voters, combating voter suppression and engaging student voters.
Straus said Main Line Reform’s 35-member civic engagement committee reached out to every adult member of the congregation two weeks ago.
“We divided the membership list up and called every member to make sure of three things: Are they registered to vote? Do they know the mechanics of voting? And do they understand how to request a mail-in ballot?” he said.
Main Line Reform member Margot Horwitz joined the committee because she has always been drawn to social justice as a Jewish value, or “civic mitzvah.” She said it was exciting to see people deciding that they want to make a better world.
Kalisch said Beth David members had been reaching out to their fellow congregants with a goal of reaching 100% voter participation among members. Their main method of outreach is phone banking and distributing information.
“The process of getting a mail-in ballot and completing it and returning it is very confusing. Although other states have been doing it for a long time, it’s new to Pennsylvania, and people have a lot of questions about it and trying to decide whether to vote in-person or by mail, so we’re mostly sort of helping people navigate a lot of those conversations,” she said.
Beth David recently hosted a virtual adult education program with Lauren Cristella, chief advancement officer of the nonpartisan advocacy organization Committee of Seventy.
Kalisch also reached out to some of her congregants who recently turned 18 and will vote for the first time. She compiled a montage of them holding signs declaring they were first-time voters and encouraging other congregants to vote as well.
Even high school students who are not yet old enough to vote are getting in on the action. NFTY – The Reform Jewish Youth Movement is organizing young citizens to advocate for the issues that matter to them.
“Our teens are phone banking and calling people to canvass and saying, ‘I can’t vote, but you can. This is my future.’ And talking about the ways in which the issues at stake in this election will impact their future,” Kalisch said. “They want to make sure that people who can vote are taking that right and that responsibility seriously. It’s a really powerful message coming from our teens.”
Congregations also reach out to voters outside their congregations via phone banking. One PA specializes in outreach to low propensity voters, or those who don’t usually participate in elections.
“The idea of this campaign is really to try to encourage everybody to have their voice heard. We think democracy is stronger, and our country is stronger, when voter participation is higher,” Kalisch said.