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Where schmoozing meets suffrage: meet the all-online tribe getting young Jews to the polls

On Wednesday night, about 50 young Jewish women gathered to hear a stump speech from Nevada Senator Jacky Rosen, a self-described “young-at-heart Jewish woman” and surrogate for the Biden campaign.

Instead of standing in an auditorium or a stadium, the women were sitting at desks or in bed, brought together virtually by Jewish Women for Joe, a volunteer group working to galvanize voters in the last weeks before the election. With in-person campaigning largely curtailed by coronavirus, Rosen and the event’s organizers faced a daunting task: getting young people energized about voting at a time when it’s all too easy to get distracted by other events or discouraged by presidential politics.

“One thing we know as Jews: you can be complicit in your silence,” Rosen told the crowd. “That’s why we cannot be silent.”

The event had the feel of a schmoozy happy hour, complete with banter and jokes designed to do well with the very specific audience. Seated in front of a tastefully arranged bookshelf (she’d probably do well on Room Rater), Rosen, a former computer programmer who flipped a Republican congressional district in 2016 and a Senate seat in 2018, talked about her work on the Senate’s bipartisan antisemitism task force. She enthused over vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris’s connection to the Jewish community: “Kamala Momala, doesn’t that say it all?” And she told listeners that though she had no political experience before 2016, she was totally prepared for the job: For years, she’d served as president of her synagogue, where the congregation had just as many opinions as the U.S. Senate.

Jewish Women for Joe has been hosting events like these since August. That’s when Sasha Altschuler, a Washington, D.C.-based community engagement strategist, got an unexpected request from Lori Weinstein, a former boss currently volunteering with the Biden campaign: Would she be interested in organizing volunteer efforts targeted at other young Jewish women?

Altschuler had no previous experience in politics. But she’d done plenty of volunteering, and she knew how to host events for young women: In her previous role at Jewish Women’s International, she’d been responsible for creating informal leadership networks around the country.

But it was her strong sense of the election’s importance that made her take the leap. “It was something I knew that I not just wanted to do, but needed to do,” Altschuler said.

Altschuler started making calls, and soon she had an eight-person steering committee. The women she assembled included political mavens like Shelley Greenspan, a State Department employee, or Natasha Dabrowski, a communications manager for the New Democrat Coalition. Some were movers and shakers in the Jewish world like Tiffany Harris, the chief program officer at Moishe House. Others, like Talia Benamy, an editor at Philomel Books, were just young Jewish women who wanted to give Joe Biden a helping hand.

There’s no shortage of initiatives targeting Jewish voters. Some are non-partisan efforts focused on getting people to the polls, regardless of their preferred candidate. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism says it has engaged with over 350,000 voters so far. Hillel’s new MitzVote initiative helps students college students register and spread the word among their friends. Events like Jewish Women Vote, a Shabbat-themed “celebration of voting” hosted by the National Council of Jewish Women, use high-profile guests like Debra Messing (a vocal Biden supporter, although the event isn’t linked to either campaign) to energize viewers about voting.

Other Jewish organizations explicitly support the Biden campaign. The Jewish Democratic Council of America has deployed ads featuring Billy Cyrstal and Bill Kristol in swing states where the Jewish vote is key. In solidly blue New York, The Jewish Vote mobilizes Jews around progressive causes and candidates.

But Jewish Women for Joe is one of several smaller groups oriented specifically around the 2020 elections and targeting a very specific slice of the Jewish vote. Like others in this genre — for example, Jewish Floridians for Biden — the group lacks a website and communicates via social media. The steering committee chooses speakers with a young, professional and largely female audience in mind. Events focus not just on the issues traditionally associated with Jews, like antisemitism, but reproductive rights, racial inequality and gun violence.

And the group’s leaders are volunteers managing full-time jobs, which means planning meetings that take place at “strange hours,” Altschuler said.

Nevertheless, just two weeks after the committee formed, Jewish Women for Joe hosted a virtual kick-off event with Ashley Biden which drew almost 1,000 attendees. Since then, they’ve hosted 10 events and are planning several more before the election. Future guests include attorney Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Each event follows a snappy format the committee designed to appeal to women like them: young professionals carving out time for politics amid professional and personal obligations that, in many cases, have only intensified during the pandemic. After a brisk Q&A, moderators conduct a quick-and-dirty phone-banking tutorial teaching participants how to log calls and what to do when speaking to a Trump supporter. (Stay cordial, of course.)

Then the most important task of the evening begins: a 30-minute phone-banking session in a swing state like Florida. Participants mute themselves but keep their video feeds on in a gesture of solidarity. While they make calls, they can see a gallery of silently gesturing comrades. In the chat box, moderators field questions and callers share positive stories. During the Rosen event, one spoke to a chiropractor who assured her he’s reminding all his patients to vote. Another spoke to a Rebpulican voter who simply said: “Not this year.”

To organizers, the bite-sized style makes Jewish Women For Joe uniquely positioned to welcome disengaged voters into the expanding tent of political organizing.

“Making sure we’re looking at each other while we phonebank, connecting in the chat, sharing stories — I think that makes this a lot more approachable,” Altschuler said.

Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @katz_conn.


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