(From left) Nancy Federman, Chris Witzel and Diane Rolfe prepare postcard kits for distribution in the spring.
(From left) Nancy Federman, Chris Witzel and Diane Rolfe prepare postcard kits for distribution in the spring.

Beth Am group thinks ‘fast’ in push for voting rights

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The Pursue Justice committee at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills is taking a page from Queen Esther’s book on how to fight for social justice:

They’re fasting — and they’re encouraging others to join in.

On Tuesday Jan. 5, the day after Congress reconvened from its winter recess, the eight-member volunteer committee is holding a dawn-to-dusk fast in an attempt to bring attention to filibuster reform, and to call on legislators to pass two voting rights bills. Committee members encouraged the entire congregation to join the effort, called “Forks Down for Democracy.”

When searching for a parallel in Jewish history, the committee found that “Queen Esther’s story just seemed to really resonate,” said Nancy Federman, 73, who co-chairs the committee. “Here was someone who was making a plea to the king [to stop the planned execution of all Jews], and she was really nervous about it, and not sure. So she asked the Jewish people to fast to give her strength and support. And then she went and made her plan, it was very successful.”

Federman, of Los Altos Hills, noted that the committee also was inspired by the group of 20 college students in Arizona who, in partnership with Un-PAC, are participating in a hunger strike that began last month, demanding passage of the Freedom to Vote Act. On the fourth day of the hunger strike, Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona met with the group and offered her support.

The goal of the day of action goes beyond fasting. The Beth Am group wants participants to contact California’s two senators, Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein, and demand they reform the filibuster and pass both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

“It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on, and it doesn’t matter what your personal politics are, the bottom line is protecting the right to vote serves all of us,” said Nancy Cavillones, the committee’s other co-chair.

In a September 2021 survey of 1,311 Americans conducted by Data for Progress, 70 percent of respondents overall expressed that they “strongly support” or “somewhat support” the Freedom to Vote Act; those support levels were 85 percent among Democrats and 54 percent among Republicans.

For supporters unable to fast, the Pursue Justice team has been recommending donations (in an amount equivalent to what one would spend on food for the day) to a nonpartisan nonprofit group that works to protect voting rights and democracy.

The group also is utilizing the White House comments line and an online form to put pressure on Congress, and is encouraging Beth Am members and others to post about their participation in the fast on social media using the hashtag #ForksDownDemocracyUp. The group created custom graphics for the campaign, as well.

“I’m hoping that people will engage so that we can see what kind of impact we’re having,” Cavillones said.

“The passion that we have from this one day of action maybe will come through in the calls, that there will be more urgency and strength in our calls. And maybe it’ll make a difference,” Federman added.

The day of action is being supported by the League of Women Voters of Palo Alto, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the RAC’s California branch, National Voter Corps and a local chapter of the Center for Common Ground.

A year ago, in the leadup to the Senate runoff election in Georgia, the Pursue Justice committee sent postcards and made phone calls in efforts to help the Center for Common Ground register voters and get out information about early voting, including where ballot drop boxes were located. The group also held Zoom gatherings ahead of the 2020 presidential election to educate people on how to register, how to change their address on file (if necessary) and where to find their voting location. They also tried to educate people about ballot issues and local candidates.

“Mainly, our focus has been informing people about voting,” Federman said.

Federman said she’ll consider Tuesday’s fast successful if it creates momentum that moves forward into the days ahead.

“I guess, if I feel that people are more energized and committed to continue to fight, that will be my feeling of measurement of how successful we were,” she said. “Because it’s very hard to stay energized in a very long fight.”

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Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.