A newly established Jewish coalition in Pittsburgh, designed to address domestic political issues, has declared the new voter identification law to be its first major project.
The Pittsburgh Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, as the coalition is called, will address the law at a public forum slated for Monday, July 23, 7 p.m., at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill.
Specifically, the forum will educate participants on the law’s requirement that voters show acceptable photo ID at the polls in order to cast ballots.
“We want to make sure no one gets disenfranchised,” said Deborah Fidel, director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee (PAJC) and one of four conveners of the roundtable.
Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law March 14 the controversial voter identification act requiring every Pennsylvania voter to present an approved photo ID before casting a ballot.
The new rules had a soft rollout for the Pennsylvania primary this past April (voters were allowed to vote regardless of ID so long as they previously voted in their precincts), but they will be enforced for the November election.
While proponents of the act argue it is needed to keep illegal aliens and others ineligible to vote from casting ballots, its opponents say it will disenfranchise the elderly, the poor and younger voters just in time to affect the presidential race.
In a recent press conference, state Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, called the law “a partisan piece of legislation being cookie-cuttered across this country where Republicans control both chambers in the state legislature and the governor’s office. You don’t see it anywhere else.”
The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the law in court.
“It’s a very important issue,” said Mark Frank, a national board member of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and a roundtable convener. “Irrespective of what the intent of the voter ID law was, the effect is it’s going to disenfranchise large groups of people.”
The roundtable could sign on to friend of the court briefs favoring amending or rolling back the law, Frank said, but for now, its focus is to help Jewish Pittsburghers understand the law and obtain the photo ID.
“Probably, the more immediate issue is to create an educational base and a network of people who will come out and help people learn, take them to the drivers license office,” Frank said.
“Anecdotally, I am finding people — Jewish folks — who are not involved in community organizations, [but] are passionate about this issue and want be involved,” he added. “I’m getting a lot of people who are on the periphery who have not been activists, but want to be activists on this. It has touched a nerve; this law has touched a nerve, and I believe a lot of people are upset about it and do find a motivation that is less than pure.”
Rabbi Ron Symons of Temple Sinai, a roundtable convener, said the group is working closely with the Jewish Association on Aging and Riverview Towers, as well as congregations and Hillel Jewish University Center groups to help young and old voters obtain approved photo ID.
“In the Jewish community, we need to make sure our 18-years-olds are registered to vote and have the right to vote and have the right ID, and our seniors have the right to vote as well,” he said.
The roundtable, which met for the first time March 16, is a coalition of Jewish congregations, organizations and individuals.
It meets every six to eight weeks to identify issues and advance members’ understanding of them from Jewish and general sources.
The roundtable will also develop consensus-based positions and develop strategies to advance those positions.
“The key thing to remember is that not every group will sign on to every issue,” Fidel said of the roundtable. “The ad hoc nature of our work is what will make it successful. Each issue will elicit a different group of sponsors, based on mission.”
Christine Stone, state policy advocacy chair of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) and another convener of the roundtable, said the project began six months ago when a group of Jewish leaders discussed building a coalition based on shared “progressive and social values.”
“Soon it became clear that there was interest in coming together, in our roles as ‘agents of values’ and as a ‘community of intention’ ” beginning with the primacy of tikkun olam (repairing the world),” Stone said in an email to the Chronicle.
Among the entities that have participated so far in the roundtable, according to PAJC, are: NCJW, Rodef Shalom Congregation, Reform Action Coalition Commission on Social Advocacy, Temple Sinai, Jewish Community Center, Temple David, Congregation Beth Shalom, Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, Temple Emanuel, JCPA, the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Anti-Defamation League, Dor Hadash, Temple B’nai Israel, Jewish Women’s Center, Jewish Family & Children’s Service, Bet Tikvah, Ahavath Achim, Hillel Jewish University Center, Jewish Association on Aging, Jewish Healthcare Foundation and the Agency for Jewish Learning.
“There is a clear niche for this roundtable,” Stone said. “While there is great work being done among Jews in the areas of Jewish identity and continuity, there is new recognition that Jews are shying away from the tensions around Israel policy and more and more are finding their Jewish identity through social justice advocacy.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)