How's this for an unusual intersection of religion and politics? A group of about 15 rabbinical students from Hebrew Union College in New York (with a few cantorial and education students thrown in) recently joined a number of their counterparts from Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote for some door-to-door canvassing for Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama.
The trip from New York to Philly (well, to Jenkintown, actually) was organized by 29-year-old Jonathan Prosnit, a third-year rabbinical student at HUC, who gathered his peers together to make the trip to this crucial swing state during the intermediate days of Sukkot.
"We had few days off after the High Holidays, and thought this would be a good time, when everybody's working very hard for the campaign," said Prosnit.
Despite all hailing from seminaries, the group's efforts in the area had no direct affiliation with either school or with the Obama campaign. The students paid their own way and arranged lodging at hotels or with friends, relying only on the campaign for organization and targeting houses to canvass. Other than that, "Every dime and the initiative — that's us," said Prosnit.
"We're going out in our capacity as private individuals," said Michael Ramberg, a third-year student at RRC. "It's not to say Jews should vote for this candidate, it's just saying 'I'm a Jew and I like this candidate.' "
Prosnit and many others echoed that sentiment, saying they had no intention of injecting politics into the pulpit, and stressing that their dedication to the campaign was done as private citizens and not as clergy — they're college students like any others. They just happen to be rabbinical college students.
On Porches and in Doorways
The group canvassed around Montgomery County for two days during Sukkot, hitting as many Jewish neighborhoods and households as they could. (Much of that specific targeting is the result of Vote Builder, the industry-standard software used by many campaigns to target specific, would-be voters). The group of almost 30 split up into carloads of three or four, hitting areas like Elkins Park and Hatboro.
Prosnit and his co-canvassers, David Levy and Julia Cozen-Harel, often met empty houses (and apartments) or uninterested parties. But on porches and in doorways they also provided important voter information, such as addresses of polling places. And when no one was home, they left literature.
In Hatboro, the three split up, visiting a number of homes festooned with Halloween decor, but passing by many with political signage.
"I've decided [who I'm voting for], but I'm not telling," one resident told Levy. "I'm a mailman, if that tells you anything about who I'm voting for."
At another home, a mother was busy getting her kids ready for school and didn't have time to talk. "We're already on board," she told him. "We're so for Obama."
Levy said that kind of response wasn't unusual: "There's a mentality of 'We're already on board, please go get others.' "
The trio took a non-aggressive approach, identifying themselves as volunteers for the Obama campaign before asking if residents had any questions about the election. Prosnit said they were well aware that some people — Jews or otherwise — had already made up their minds and wouldn't be persuaded.
"There's going to be Jews that won't vote for Obama, but there are Jews that won't vote for any Democrat," he said. He added that he felt the "scare e-mails" had worked in dissuading some Jews from pulling the lever for the Democratic candidate.
Prosnit summed up the importance of their efforts in an off-the-cuff remark: "Did you see that the candidates both chose the Phillies and Tampa for the World Series?" Prosnit casually asked his fellow canvassers. "I wonder what are the two major swing states?"