In early October, Iris Elliot called a fellow member of Congregation Shaare Emeth and told her that she was on a list of congregants who were not registered to vote.
Ruth Cohn of Creve Coeur said she was surprised by the call.
“I’ve been voting for years,” said Cohn, who worked in her family business, Cohn Athletic Service Co., and is now retired. “I’m 88 years old, and I’ve lived in the same house for 45 years,” meaning that she had not changed where she was registered.
Elliot reached out to Cohn because the Reform synagogue aims to get every member out to vote in the midterm election Tuesday.
The congregation started its Vote Your Values campaign as part of an effort to increase the number of members who are active in social justice, Rabbi Andrea Goldstein said. It is participating in a Union for Reform Judaism initiative focused on “congregation-based community organizing,” she said.
“The theory is that instead of having a very small social justice committee decide what the congregation will be involved in and try from the top down to encourage or coerce people to be involved in [it], the congregation would conduct a widespread listening campaign and hear what people’s concerns are and from that come to some consensus,” Goldstein said.
The voting drive is one example of activism from a Jewish movement that has often taken positions on hot-button issues and integrated politics into congregational life.
Goldstein recalls an effort on Yom Kippur in which members drafted 900 letters to legislators urging them to keep access to abortion available to families of all income levels. The congregation also recently hosted a candidates’ forum for the U.S. House District 2 race. (The Democratic nominee, Cort VanOstran, attended; the Republican incumbent, Ann Wagner, did not.)
“There are many people in our community who are concerned about a lot of policies that state, local and federal governments have been putting forth, and are looking to do what they can to make a change,” Goldstein said.
Shaare Emeth started the listening campaign last year to find out what issues congregants were most concerned about. This summer, it was determined that the first campaign would focus on getting all members to commit to voting in the midterms and to vote for Amendment 1, which would reform redistricting and tighten restrictions on state lobbyists, among other changes.
The synagogue is not alone locally in its political activism. For example, on Oct. 22, Central Reform Congregation provided space for a “Women to Women Blue Tsunami Phone Event” at which clergy, politicians and volunteers from local women’s rights groups called women registered as Democrats and encouraged them to vote. (The synagogue was not listed as a sponsor on the Facebook event.)
At Shaare Emeth, organizers paid $35 to the St. Louis County Board of Elections for a list of registered voters and then compared those names against its membership list.
Goldstein said they heard from four people who thought “the synagogue should not engage in this kind of work.” That’s out of 1,600 families who belong to the congregation.
“They believe that the synagogue should just be a place where people come to find comfort and not be challenged at all in these ways,” she said. “I think some people feel that even though we don’t talk about candidates and don’t endorse candidates, that it’s partisan, and so that’s hard for them.”
Elliot, an English teacher, said she volunteered to make calls because she “cares a lot about getting people out to vote. I feel that we are fortunate to have that privilege.”
Cohn told Elliot that her wallet was stolen in July and that she had a new driver’s license. She thought that might have something to do with the registration issue. As it turned out, it was because the election board had her birth date wrong. It clarified the discrepancy, and Cohn should have no problem voting Tuesday, Elliot said.
“I appreciate that, because if I would have gotten there and they told me I wasn’t registered, I would have been really disappointed,” said Cohn, who lives in Creve Coeur and volunteers at Brookdale Senior Living, an assisted living community.
Shaare Emeth does not yet have data on how many members registered to vote; before the registration deadline, 91 percent of adults 22 and older were registered. (The congregation has a separate list of college-age members that it has not yet tabulated.)
In addition to making a commitment to vote, members are also becoming more involved in congregational programming, said Debbie Bram, Shaare Emeth director of Jewish life and learning.
And Cohn, who still drives a little, has a ride to her polling place. Elliot connected her with a friend who lives nearby and offered to pick her up.
“Thank goodness they are doing this,” Cohn said. “If I had to worry about getting there myself, I probably wouldn’t have gone.”