The presidential election saw not only historic voter turnout across the country, but also more participation in the Orthodox Jewish communities in the Five Towns and Far Rockaway, propelled by the nonpartisan voting initiative KlalVote.
KlalVote was created by Far Rockaway residents Chaim Rapfogel and Elie Yechiel. Klal translates to community in Hebrew. The initiative is not affiliated with any specific social issue or political party.
“The idea for this project came from a common perception within the local Orthodox community about our perceived lack of political voice,” said Yechiel, an attorney. “Much of the community came to the conclusion that voting is the key to acquiring a healthy relationship with our elected officials.”
KlalVote’s focus, Yechiel said, was on getting people out to vote in a nonpartisan way. “As an organization, we don’t ask people to vote Democrat or Republican — we’re just saying to vote,” he said. “We have enough humility to acknowledge that we don’t have the authority to speak for the entire Jewish community on political issues. But once you vote, you have a voice.”
For Rapfogel, the goal was to increase voter turnout. “We aim to avoid all controversy by steering clear of political affiliations, endorsements or debates over specific political objectives,” he said. “We will leave those important issues to others. This is about voter turnout and gaining a voice for our community.”
Rapfogel said that KlalVote volunteers contacted roughly 70 synagogues in the Five Towns and Far Rockaway and encouraged their members to register to vote. Each shul chose a “captain” who led the effort. Roughly 6,000 people registered, and according to KlalVote’s website, Congregation Kneseth Israel had the most in Far Rockaway, 297, and Young Israel of Woodmere had the most in the Five Towns, 449.
“Each local voter enters his or her name and affiliated shul on our site after voting, so we can collectively track our communal progress in real time,” Rapfogel said. “Captains and shuls engage in a fun and friendly ‘competition’ for high voter turnout.”
Richard Altabe, the lower school principal at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, in Woodmere, and a board member of the Jewish Community Council of the Rockaway Peninsula, has volunteered for KlalVote and other local political causes. “We have 5,000 potential voters here in Far Rockaway and many more thousands in the Five Towns,” Altabe said. “The voter turnout in previous elections has been under 50 percent. If we can maximize our potential as a community by voting, our elected officials will hear us louder and we will be more represented in government.”
Yechiel said he was blown away by the number of new voters. “We set high expectations at the beginning of this endeavor, and the community’s response shattered our expectations,” he said. “The project started in Far Rockaway, and the first week, the focus was there. The week before the election, we decided to expand into the Five Towns.”
Yechiel noted that in a typical election, voter turnout in the Far Rockaway Orthodox community ranges from 1,300 to 1,800, but this year nearly 4,000 people voted. “The whole thing was a sprint, and the numbers reflect that,” he said. “Despite this, the Five Towns turnout was successful as well.”
Going forward, Yechiel said, the organization will focus on registering more voters for the 2021 local elections. “In the offseason, we want to take the time to focus on registration,” he said. “We plan to build on the infrastructure we’ve put in place and increase our numbers. One way to do so is by comparing our shul lists to public registration lists to see who hasn’t registered to vote.”
For more information on KlalVote, go to https://klalvote.org.
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