Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden show their support before the vice presidential debate outside Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Oct. 7, 2020. (Photo/JTA-George Frey AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden show their support before the vice presidential debate outside Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Oct. 7, 2020. (Photo/JTA-George Frey AFP via Getty Images)

‘My security as a Jew is at stake’: Jewish Bay Area Biden supporters work feverishly to get out the vote

This is part two of our Oct. 16 print edition cover package, “Divided We Vote.” Part one, about Bay Area Jews who support Donald Trump is here.

On Nov. 9 four years ago, Myra Levy woke up feeling guilty. The results of the 2016 election were in, and in Levy’s eyes she had done the bare minimum to make sure that Hillary Clinton was elected president.

“All I did was vote,” said Levy, a finance professional for nonprofits who lives in San Francisco. No organizing. No letter writing. No phone banking for an election that hinged on a mere 80,000 voters in three key swing states.

Now, with the 2020 election weeks away, Levy said she is not making the same mistake this time around. Since March, Levy has helped oversee virtual trainings for over 1,000 self-identified introverts from around the country on how to call people in battleground states.

“The motivating factor of guilt … if that’s what it takes, go with that,” Levy said.

In interviews with nine local Jewish Democrats, a sense of urgency emerged in what all describe as a critical and consequential election for American Jews. President Donald Trump is dangerously divisive, they all said, and they strongly oppose nearly every policy position of his administration.

But one key issue is propelling most of these activists to get Joe Biden into the White House: Trump’s historic reluctance to categorically distance himself from his antisemitic and white supremacist supporters. The topic came to the forefront, yet again, after the president danced around the topic at the Sept. 29 debates,  saying “this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left-wing problem.”

line art illustration: two Jews argue with the Golden Gate bridge in the background. one, a man, is wearing a red Trump kippah. the other, a woman, is wearing a blue Biden kippah and wearing a facemask.
This article appeared as part of J.’s Oct. 16, 2020, print edition cover story. The cover art for the issue is an original illustration by artist Kurt Hoffman. Click here to subscribe to J.’s biweekly print edition.

To get Trump out and Biden in, these Jewish activists are focusing their efforts on battleground states, namely Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania, all of which went for Trump in the 2016 election but are now leaning toward Biden. Most are focusing on phone banking, texting and writing letters from their homes since the pandemic has made canvassing less viable this election season.

“Trump is really trying to divide us,” said Levy, who is working with Swing Left San Francisco. “The act of calling strangers and connecting with them in a strategic way is kind of the opposite of that.”

Others who are motivated to act are doing so even though they’re too young to vote.

In San Mateo, 17-year-old senior Halle Strause is organizing phone banking volunteers because “there’s a lot at stake” in this election for Jews, she said. Since early September, Strause has corralled a group of 10 students at Hillsdale High School to make calls to swing-state voters two to three times a week.

She’s working with Seed the Vote, a Bay Area-based project that connects Democratic volunteers with on-the-ground grassroots groups in Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania. The group’s goal is to have 1 million conversations with people in those states.

“As Jewish people and as a marginalized group, I don’t feel completely safe under Trump’s administration, who encourages white supremacy groups and fuels hate,” said Strause, a member of the youth-led Jewish Youth for Community Action, or JYCA.

a middle aged man and woman pose with their thumbs up in front of a large "I Voted" sign
Myra Levy (left) and her partner, Charlie Varon. (Photo/Courtesy Myra Levy)

She specifically called out Trump’s comments at the first debate, when the president mentioned the far-right Proud Boys and told the group to “stand back and stand by.” The statement was celebrated by some in the group and perceived as a call to action.

“That doesn’t make me feel safe as a Jew in America,” said Strause, whose family belongs to Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. The work, she said, has inspired her to get involved with local politics after the election.

Sixteen-year-old Maggie Sena, a fellow congregant and friend of Strause’s who is helping to phone bank, said she wants Biden elected because he’s “more inclusive to everyone.” Trump, she said, “lacks the empathy to understand what it’s like to be [from] a marginalized group.” Sena said she especially enjoys speaking with independent or undecided voters and using her skills to persuade them to vote Democrat.

Both Strause and Sena said they planned on volunteering as poll workers on Election Day.

Another Seed the Vote volunteer and JYCA alumnae, Sara Shor, said she is organizing a group of about 20 friends and family to do weekly phone banking.

“A lot of the people in the group are Jewish and are really afraid of the divisiveness that Trump has created,” she said. “One of the reasons they’re out is because they’ve seen how scary and toxic that divisiveness has been. I think Jews have a special memory with what that divisiveness can cause.”

Unlike most activists, Shor will actually be traveling to Arizona before the election to knock on doors for Seed the Vote, an effort that her brother David is helping organize. She said there’s a “robust system” in place for her to socially distance from the people she will be interacting with.

two teenage girls sit on a couch smiling. one is holding a cellphone, the other a piece of paper.
High schoolers Halle Strause (left) and Maggie Sena (right) phone bank for Seed the Vote. (Photo/Courtesy Maggie Sena)

“Person-to-person conversations are the most effective way to get people to turn out,” she said.

Bend the Arc, a national, progressive Jewish political organization, is turning Trump’s resistance to criticizing far-right groups into a wedge issue for Jewish voters in Florida and Georgia, in a nationwide project dubbed “Vote Out Fear.”

“There may be people who see some of these trends, who see that these white supremacist groups [are] being empowered, and they may be uncomfortable with that,” said Ruthann Richter, a board member of Bend the Arc’s South Bay chapter and a member of Palo Alto Congregation Kol Emeth. “If we can emphasize these issues, maybe they can shift to the Democratic camp,” she explained. “It’s speaking from one Jewish person to another.”

The project has brought together more than 600 volunteers and has reached close to 500,000 people in both states, according to the website. Jews in Florida represent 4 percent of eligible voters, the website says, and they could be a “significant force” in making Florida the state “where Trump’s presidency comes to an end.”

Wendy Thurm, who works directly with the Biden campaign, said that Jews are “at risk” right now under Trump’s presidency. A member of Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco, she says she’s mainly focused on texting as a strategy, both nationally and in Wisconsin, a state that went for Trump in 2016 but is looking very likely to go blue this year.

One issue Thurm is focusing on in Wisconsin is reminding mail-in voters that they need a witness to sign their ballot envelope, a requirement that came about with the pandemic as vote-by-mail requests surged.

While most of the Jewish organizing up until the election will be done on the phone or over Zoom calls, one small-business owner in San Francisco has made it possible to campaign for the Democratic ticket in person.

a series of covered blue wooden booths with Biden-Harris posters on them line a sidewalk
Victory Booths line the Valencia Street sidewalk outside Manny’s Café. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

Manny Yekutiel has built what he calls the country’s “first outdoor, socially distanced Victory Booths” on the sidewalk of his Mission District café, Manny’s. Constructed in early September, the 10 wooden stalls are being used seven days a week. Masked volunteers sit inside the regularly sanitized, 5-by-5-foot booths for one hour to phone bank, text and write letters to swing-state voters. Each Victory Booth is named after a female liberal icon, such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Nancy Pelosi and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, among others.

Manny’s employees sit inside the “Michelle Obama” booth furnished with ornate lamps and rugs. They serve coffee, tea and empanadas to the volunteers while they work, Yekutiel said. So far, the volunteers have written 20,000 letters, sent hundreds of thousands of texts and made thousands of calls. The café has also raised close to $24,000 to pay for the construction of the booths.

“It’s basically a campaign office, but outside,” said Yekutiel, who worked on the Obama and Clinton campaigns and sponsors regular candidate and issues forums at his café. “It’s a way to come out and do something safe.” About 70 people per day come to work in the booths, Yekutiel said.

In addition to overseeing the booths, Yekutiel is hosting a weekly live show on NowThis Politics, where he interviews various Biden staff members. He asks them about their role with the campaign, their personal story and what is important to them about this election. The videos are blasted out to the channel’s audience of over 10 million people and have almost a quarter of a million views each.

Yekutiel’s café, which opened right after the 2016 election, has faced regular protests and boycotts by activists who call him a “Zionist gentrifier.” Despite that, he said it’s antisemitism from the far right that is motivating him to get Trump out of office.

“It has become dangerous to be publicly Jewish in the country,” Yekutiel said. “My security as a Jew is at stake in America.”

a man in his 30s sits in a covered blue wooden booth
Manny Yekutiel sits inside one of his Victory Booths. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

On Sept. 11, Manny’s was vandalized, an incident that Yekutiel speculated on a GoFundMe page could be the work of Trump supporters, who send him “daily hate messages.”

One group planning on working at Manny’s booths is the S.F.-based Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club, longtime member and former president Gia Daniller-Katz said.

The club took a hiatus after the 2016 election, but is now back and making calls to swing-state voters. When volunteers reach Jewish voters on the phone, Daniller-Katz said, they tell them why Biden’s record on Israel is stronger than Trump’s.

“[We’re] reminding them that Biden is someone with deep ties to the Jewish community,” she said. Biden has stated that his commitment to Israel is “unshakeable,” but he is also willing to criticize the Netanyahu government. In May, Biden said he was opposed to Israel’s planned unilateral annexation of the West Bank, but also was against setting conditions on U.S. military aid to discourage such a move, a position some of his Democratic colleagues supported.

In August, Trump announced an agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, part of a set of Middle East accords the president has promoted in part as a way to woo Jewish voters.

“Trump can’t have it both ways,” Daniller-Katz said. “He can’t be a friend of Jews and then not condemn white supremacy. I think this is something that troubles the Jewish community.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at gabriel@jweekly.com and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.