At Rodef Shalom, all politics is local

Karen Menichelli asks if visitors to the Arlington Food Assistance Center are registered to vote. Photo by Jared Foretek.

It’s a sweltering Thursday morning and three retired women from Temple Rodef Shalom are standing outside the Arlington Food Assistance Center, a food pantry in Shirlington. They’ve been there for close to three hours, since before the pantry even opened. But they’re not there about food. Instead, they’re engaging in the time-honored tradition of clutching a clipboard and asking, “Excuse me, are you registered to vote?”

The women are doing their part in the Reform synagogue’s new initiative, what they’re calling “Let Every Voice Be Heard.” The stated goal is to “get every eligible voter to the polls.”

But these women have a more modest objective today: if they successfully register one or two voters, they’ll consider it successful. The deadline to register in Virginia is Oct. 15, and the women (or others from the synagogue) plan to be at the food pantry twice a week until the end of the month, when they’ll move to another location.

“People have been interested. Many have been curious about whether they’re eligible to vote at all,” says Fran Miller, a retired lawyer, adding that a number of would-be voters have asked about rights restoration for people with felonies. So far, they’ve registered one voter.

Karen Menichelli, who heads Rodef Shalom’s social action committee, repeatedly points out that the effort is purely non-partisan; the synagogue’s tax-exempt status prohibits it from engaging in electioneering on behalf of a party or candidate.

But speaking with the women leaves little doubt about which side they’re on. “The point is to reach underserved, particularly minority communities,” Menichelli says.

And they’re not far from one of the most targeted House districts in the country for Democrats: Virginia’s 10th, held by Republican Barbara Comstock.

“The last couple of years, it feels like the issues have become so personal that people want to get involved,” Menichelli says. “The stance that we take is that we follow Jewish values where they lead us. We don’t take positions on candidates, but we do take stances on the issues. And the fact that this administration, this Congress and the courts have gutted the Voting Rights Act, I think we have an obligation as moral people to step up and fight back however we can.”

Some might say that they represent the face of “the resistance” — college-educated, suburban women. Menichelli spent her career in communications, Miller has experience in election law and Faith Abzug is a retired teacher, but none of them had ever registered voters before this summer.

In a February essay for “Democracy,” Lara Putnam, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, and Theda Skocpol, who teaches government and sociology at Harvard, wrote about this kind of phenomenon in the Trump era.

“Sociologically, what we are witnessing is an inflection point — a shift in long-standing trends — concentrated in one large demographic group, as college-educated women have ramped up their political participation en masse,” they wrote.

Menichelli, Miller and Putnam all steer away from addressing Trump or political parties directly, and they’re not encouraging people to vote for a particular candidate. They’re just asking if those headed to pick up groceries have registered to vote at their current address and, if not, whether they’d like to do so. But they all share an urgency in talking about the upcoming midterms.

“The stakes are so much higher, everybody needs to have some skin in the game,” Abzug says. “It’s more important than ever.”

And Rodef Shalom isn’t stopping at in-person registration. Congregants have recently begun organizing phone banking sessions, where members and other people from around the area have come to call would-be voters and remind them of the upcoming election. They’d run a similar operation leading up to the state-wide elections in Virginia last year, which Democrats swept.

According to Gerson Sher, who’s been leading the phone banking efforts, they had over 100 people from Rodef Shalom, the nearby Shiloh Baptist Church and elsewhere making calls from the synagogue at a kick-off event last month.

“I think Jews need to get out of their cocoon and reach out to the community in ways that some perhaps haven’t done before,” Sher says.

According to him, it’s not just Trump driving the surge in activism among congregants. He says there was a noticeable shift after the Unite the Right rally brought neo-Nazis and white supremacists to Charlottesville last year.

“Before Charlottesville, it was like pulling teeth to get people to show up to events and meetings,” Sher says. “After Charlottesville, people were coming out of the woodwork. People are committed like they were not before.”

Over three hours in, the women in Arlington are met by a fourth congregant — who speaks Spanish. A good portion of the potential voters they want to talk to have trouble with English.

But they’re winding down for the day, the center is closing soon and the intensifying heat is taking its toll. They’ve been handing out flyers and reminding people of the upcoming elections. But so far, they’re still at just one voter registered. For the volunteers, that’s plenty.

“As we were telling one gentleman, every vote can make a difference,” Miller says. And anyway, they’ll be back next week.

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