Getting out the Orthodox vote in Cuyahoga County, Ohio

Shontel Brown. Photo by Stephen Zenner/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom

By Jonathan Arking, Ezra Dayanim, Judah Guggenheim, Meshulam Ungar and Eva Wyner

We are Modern Orthodox young adults from Maryland and Pennsylvania dedicated to supporting the U.S.-Israel alliance. Together, we helped elect Shontel Brown as the next congresswoman from Ohio’s 11th Congressional District through previously untried methods: mobilizing the local predominantly conservative Orthodox Jewish community behind a pro-Israel Democrat in a Democratic primary.

This race featured a crowded playing field with two clear frontrunners: Nina Turner, a former state senator and top Bernie Sanders surrogate, and Shontel Brown, a county Democratic Party chairwoman and Cuyahoga County councilwoman. Turner and Brown’s political differences regarding the U.S.-Israel relationship were stark.

When Brown proudly said during the Israel-Hamas conflict in May that “Israel has the right to defend its citizens in the face of these attacks,” Turner retweeted a post from the anti-occupation group IfNotNow featuring protestors with signs emblazoned with slogans such as “Jews against apartheid.” Turner quote-tweeted this post with the words “solidarity is a verb.”

Turning out the Orthodox vote for Shontel Brown still required a mass effort, due in significant part to the predominantly Republican makeup of American Orthodox Jewry. This is where both we and local community leaders came in.

Cleveland’s rabbinic and communal leadership articulated, within the necessary legal boundaries, a straightforward and effective pitch for Brown: It does not matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat, if you vote in every election or have never voted. If you care about the U.S.-Israel relationship, then you should vote for Shontel Brown. By voting, you are playing a role in cementing pro-Israel majorities in both parties.

Whether in WhatsApp groups or email inboxes, Cleveland’s Orthodox Jews were hearing the arguments for Brown loud and clear. They were hearing them from trusted sources — friends, teachers, rabbis, neighbors. By the time we arrived, few potential voters needed to be convinced that Shontel Brown was the better candidate. Therefore, our work centered on mobilization and getting out the vote, not persuasion.

We focused on the neighborhoods of Beachwood and University Heights (Cleveland Heights, the other heavily Orthodox area, was canvassed by local volunteers). We engaged with three main groups of Orthodox voters. First, we encountered a group definitely voting for Shontel Brown, whether enthusiastic or somewhat reluctant (because they were normally dedicated Republicans). We credit the large number of voters in this category to the Cleveland Orthodox leadership’s effective messaging that had underscored the stakes and dynamic of this race (i.e., a Democrat will always win in the November election).

The second major group of observant Jews we spoke with was generally unaware of the current political climate. Our conversations with them were primarily informational, i.e., explaining where to vote or when Election Day was. However, even though this group may not follow politics closely, the pro-Shontel messaging from leaders and rabbis meant that they didn’t need much convincing. The final group we engaged with was unaware of the congressional race occurring in their district, or who the candidates were. We explained to them who was running, why they should vote for Shontel Brown and how to vote.

Working with Shontel Brown’s campaign and Orthodox community partners, we knocked on roughly 1,000 doors (some of them multiple times) in the predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, engaged with voters outside kosher restaurants and grocery stores, stood with signs near carpool lines and spent hours outside of daily minyanim (prayer services).

During our ramp-up to and on Election Day, we engaged in hundreds of positive interactions with Orthodox Jewish voters.

We can proudly say that our efforts worked. In an election with a 4,000-vote margin, out of a total of 75,000 votes, Beachwood had the highest turnout of any city in the district, and University Heights also had an above-average turnout. Though Orthodox voters may not have made up all of that 4,000, they no doubt made this victory decisive, and squarely out of the recount margin.

Looking back at this election, we can see the power that Jewish mobilization can have to sway elections. Even voters who would not normally vote, especially not for a Democrat, came out to vote for Shontel Brown. Why? Because the Jewish community, both locally and nationally, united for Shontel Brown. Voters did not fracture along partisan lines, but transcended them for the sake of a strong, secure and bipartisan U.S.-Israel relationship. When Jews are mobilized to unite in support of a candidate, results follow.

Ezra Dayanim, Judah Guggenheim and Meshulam Ungar live in the Kemp Mill neighborhood of Silver Spring; Jonathan Arking is from Baltimore and Eva Wyner is from Philadelphia.

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