Sylvia Finger and Jill Israel were honored at Avodah’s 2020 Annual Partners in Justice event in New Orleans for their efforts to organize and register more than 9,000 new voters in just two years through their work with the Engaging New Voices & Voters (ENVV) coalition. Below, Sylvia and Jill describe how they drew inspiration from their Jewish values to take on this massive effort and how young adults have the power to create more just and equitable political systems.
By Sylvia Finger and Jill Israel
Engaging New Voices & Voters was created in 2018 by passionate, like-minded leaders from the New Orleans branches of the National Council of Jewish Women and the League of Women Voters. The vision was to form a coalition of active and motivated nonpartisan nonprofits – and leverage the power in numbers. And that is exactly what happened, with the coalition now including more than a dozen organizations with a mailing list of about 300 volunteers. Although our activity was slowed considerably during the pandemic, we are finding ways to continue the mission! We want everyone who is eligible to register to vote to register and to exercise their right to vote.
While voting is a fundamental right in our United States Constitution, this essential freedom is not guaranteed in all other countries. Our coalition kicked things off by registering many of the newly naturalized citizens at the weekly naturalization ceremonies, averaging between 60 and 70 registrations each week until COVID-19 put an end to our in-person activities.
We expanded our focus to Gen Z, a growing segment of the voting population that, together with Millennials, accounts for 37-percent of eligible voters. These young adults can make a difference in who gets elected and what laws, regulations and policies get adopted. We work with them to understand the power they hold. ENVV registered students at high schools and colleges across the New Orleans metro area during 2018 and 2019, then pivoted to online webinars to register and motivate students to go vote during the pandemic.
In Louisiana, voter registration isn’t hard, but it can feel that way; our work is to make it convenient and motivating. In Louisiana, the online voter registration system works great for those who have an LA-issued driver’s license or identification card. However, many students do not. This is also true for city dwellers who rely on public transportation. Our coalition brings clipboards, pens, and the paper application form – making registration simple. And we get those forms delivered to the Registrar of Voters.
The two co-chairs of ENVV came into this work from different angles: one as an immigrant from South Africa who had seen firsthand the results of disenfranchisement; the other inspired by the student-led march on Washington for legislation to prevent gun violence after the Parkland shooting. Both of us share the belief that voting is the most concrete way to participate in a democracy and create change.
Avodah’s mission to create lifelong leaders for social change, whose work for justice is rooted in and nourished by Jewish values, dovetails with our work. As Jews we are commanded to repair the world, Tikkun Olam, and voting is one way we can use our voices to do this.
We find inspiration in seeing young leaders committing to social justice work and knowing that what we started will be in good hands in the future. Young adults are changing the face of politics and can create the change they are seeking.
Our advice? Find something that you feel passionate about and engage with others that share a vision. There is power in numbers – and this is a great way to build community.
About Sylvia Finger and Jill Israel:
Sylvia Finger immigrated to the United States from South Africa in 1972 and in 1976, the family moved to New Orleans, where they have been actively involved in the Jewish community. Sylvia has served on the Boards of Shir Chadash Sisterhood and Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation in various capacities, as well as the Boards of Hadassah and National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW). Sylvia is a speech-language pathologist and learning specialist with an active private practice in Metairie. Jill is a retired corporate executive who now devotes her days to several non-profits including Engaging New Voices & Voters, the League of Women Voters – New Orleans, Touro Synagogue, Touro Infirmary, Jewish Endowment Foundation, and the Anti-Defamation League.
Both Sylvia and Jill’s work in the areas of voter registration, voter engagement, and voter rights have been a prime focus of the last three years. Sylvia is Chair of the Voter Rights/Mobilization efforts of the NCJW Public Affairs Committee, while Jill is Chair of the League of Women Voters (New Orleans) Voter Services Committee. Together, Jill and Sylvia have created and nurtured a non-partisan coalition of nonprofit organizations called Engaging New Voices and Voters (ENVV). Creating voter registration events at high schools and colleges and many other locations, including the weekly new citizen naturalization ceremonies. ENVV, through its 250+ corps of volunteers, has registered about 9,000 new voters. Jill and Sylvia are working on ways to register more new voters in this important election year, despite school closings and supporting efforts to expand vote by mail.