Area activists write letters to boost turnout in fall pandemic election

Photo Courtesy of Jessica Brater
Social justice activists at Bnai Keshet organized a series of letter-writing parties of community volunteers via Zoom this summer to boost voter turnout in the pandemic election this fall, stockpiling nearly 3,000 letters. The next party is Aug. 30 as the effort continues into the fall.

MONTCLAIR, NJ — Looking to improve voter turnout during a pandemic presidential election, social justice activists at Bnai Keshet in Montclair organized letter-writing parties via Zoom for the community this summer, stockpiling nearly 3,000 letters heading into fall.

The effort’s organizers, Lisa Auslander and Jessica Brater, started a Civic Engagement Committee under the Social Justice/Tikkun Olam Committee at Bnai Keshet, led by Maya Grosz and Beth Rubin. Brater and Auslander launched the virtual letter-writing parties in June, in conjunction with a national coalition of progressive groups such as Vote Forward, who believe that one of the most effective ways to boost turnout this fall as COVID-19 forces the campaigns online is to send personalized, handwritten, postage-stamped messages to voters in underrepresented demographics in battleground states, encouraging recipients to cast a ballot.

The Bnai Keshet campaign launched in June as a project for a course in social justice organizing that Auslander and Brater took with JOIN for Justice. 

Auslander announced to the congregation’s Tikkun Olam participants and non-affiliated volunteers: “Our goals include building community as we do something fun to work towards a common goal, and conducting voter outreach and civic participation as a congregation as we enter into election season. All of our efforts are nonpartisan.”

Participants in the six letter-writing parties so far include volunteers from Bnai Keshet, the Universalist Unitarian of Montclair and Shomrei Emunah in Montclair. 

“In fact, a member of Shomrei is planning to start hosting her own parties to continue the work this fall,” Auslander said.

Bnai Keshet’s Noam Brenner, who participated in a new social justice program for young adults this summer, the Pressman internship, also hosted a virtual letter-writing party for younger members as part of the work of the Civic Engagement Committee.

“Our efforts so far have generated close to 3,000 letters to Florida,” said Brater, a theater professor at Montclair State University. Brater added that, through another congregational connection, Luna Stage Artistic Director and Bnai Keshet member Ari Laura Kreith invited Brater and Bnai Keshet’s Melissa Schaffer to create a virtual play “inspired by the letter-writing efforts for Luna Stage’s NEA-granted project ‘Voting Writes.’”

Based on the notion that campaign messages fade quickly, the idea is to mail the stockpiled letters as close as possible to election day without missing it. But with the U.S. Postal Service operating under duress, the organizers recognize they may have to adjust the mailing dates. The national groups are tracking federal and state lawsuits that may affect absentee deadlines and policies, USPS performance and more. But based on data they’ve collected so far, “there is a good chance we will mail earlier than originally planned.”

The committee effort is expanding this fall as co-facilitators Marian Golan, Maritza Guzman and Deb Levy of Bnai Keshet will help run parties in the fall, and Bnai Keshet’s Ellen Kolba will help coordinate resources.

If you’re interested in hosting your own community GOTV letter-writing parties and would like resources, reach out to Auslander or Brater at [email protected] or [email protected]