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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Yocheved Seidman

-- Rabbi Dr. Goldie Milgram

Yocheved Seidman and her husband, Mordechai, are Lubavitchers who live in Ithaca, NY with their 4 year-old son. Mordechai Seidman is a bio-physics researcher at Cornell University where Yocheved is working to complete her dissertation on Turkish textile workers. The Obama campaign was Yocheved's first formal participation in U.S. politics. She was in the Peace Corps in Tanzania and also worked for the World Bank and USAID in Africa (Malawi, Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Mali). Yocheved, along with Jonathan Kamens (JGAN's vice-president and online director) and Jordan Pollack (technical advisor), is now working with the many volunteers who made up the 100% grassroots group Jews for Obama to build the Jewish Grassroots Action Network (JGAN) as a vehicle for inspiring and organizing the broadest possible group of Jewish-Americans to engage in grassroots activism.

PJV: What might be some of her favorite campaigning memories?

I recall speaking to a group of five or six Lubavitch girls, late teens to early twenties, and asking them about basic issues questions. I asked them, 'If you were married and working and you and your husband both had jobs with small companies that couldn't afford health care insurance on their own; would you want there to be some kind of health care insurance that you could buy for your family? Something the government could organize, not for free, but that you could buy?' 'Yes,' they responded, 'that would be a good idea.' I also asked them about social security, 'There's a cap on the level of income after which a person doesn't contribute to social security, might it be a good idea to slightly raise that cap so there will be enough social security funds in the future for young people growing up now to use when they retire?' They also agreed with that. I went down the line with Obama positions and they agreed one by one. Then I asked, 'Are you aware that both McCain and Obama support the same policy for resolution of the conflict in Israel?' and they were not. So they were able to see that by analyzing Obama's actual positions they could support him even if they did not agree with him on Israel because he was better on domestic policy in every single area and his Israel policy was in fact no different then McCain's. We went on to discuss many of the negative claims being spread about Obama and it was clear to me that none of that held sway with them once they realized they had core agreements with on him on concrete issues they cared about. It was a breakthrough moment.

I also treasure the relationships that I was able to build with people who have been dedicated to left wing activism for many years and have never worked with a Chassidshe lady in a wig before. I was moved by the warmth and easy camaraderie our volunteer groups had during the campaign. I had insisted that we have kosher snacks for all of our Upstate NY phonebanks (I cooked falafel for one - falafel and phonebanking sounded good together) and I had to tell the men with hands out in greeting that I cannot shake hands with them for religious reasons. No one felt awkward - we were all united for the same purpose - get Obama elected. Now we have to rise to the challenge of uniting to support the President-Elect's agenda after he is sworn in - realizing that not everyone will agree with everything that he does. Thankfully he told us in advance that he will be listening to us - especially when we disagree.

PJV: Why did you choose to support Obama? What influenced your choice from a Jewish perspective?

I thought he had the best policies for the United States domestically by far. In regard to the Middle East and Israel, I very carefully examined both candidates, including looking into what John McCain said and did about these matters before he went into campaign mode and including calling the Jewish community in Chicago to talk to Orthodox Jews who knew Obama personally. I spoke to State Senator Ira Silverstein who is an Orthodox Jew who shared an office with President-elect Obama for six years in Illinois and he told me that, 'Barack is mensch. What you see is what you get. He is not just saying he supports Israel in order to get elected - he means what he is saying.' I spoke to Ira Silverstein quite a few times during the campaign and his description of his friendship with Obama in which they discussed Israel and religion extensively made a big difference to me. In fact, as we neared election day I arranged an interview for Senator Silverstein with Nachum Segal (a major Orthodox Jewish radio host in NJ) because I wanted other Orthodox Jews to have a chance to hear Ira talk about Obama as only he can. However, it was not Obama's policy positions that got me off the bench so to speak and into volunteering, it was his political style that motivated me.

The Obama vision is inclusive in a genuine way. Obama recognizes that people want to work together, we're tired of being locked in factionalism. I am personally absolutely fed up with the smug knee-jerk hatred of the other side that has become so common in our country on both the right and the left. As a Jewish activist, I try to stay focused on being true to my values while genuinely trying to understand how others think. A key experience that laid the groundwork for me to be able to work effectively in a broad coalition of Jews who do not all agree on Judaism or on Israel was becoming friends with an Israeli graduate student who is far to the left on Israel policy. Shortly after being introduced in an academic setting, he said to me, 'I am surprised that a Chabadnik would be an intellectual'. I explained that the basic concept of Chabad Chassidus is to use the mind to transform the heart and that it is in fact the most intellectual form of Chassidic philosophy. He mentioned that he was a direct descendent of the great Chassidic master, Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk. I happened to have a small copy of the sefer (book) compiling the teachings of his famous relative entitled, the Noam Elimelech, with me. We started to study it and have carried on studying the Noam Elimelech weekly for more than 5 years now.

Along the way we got into a couple of political arguments and quickly decided to place that topic off limits. However, after gaining respect for each other and having a common purpose of studying Chassidus as an intellectual pursuit, we are able to now talk about Israeli politics without bitterness and acrimony entering the conversation. We do not agree but we are able to better understand each other's assumptions. That is what I have been trying to do throughout the process of building the Jewish grassroots activities started during the campaign that we will now build going forward. On a very emotional topic like Israel, it is sometimes necessary to put it aside for a time and build relationships by working on common goals before trying to explore points of disagreement. I feel that Obama inspired people to take the emotional risk involved in engaging with people across lines of disagreement. Now that I am involved with grassroots activism there is no turning back. I have met a lot of wonderful people.

PJV: How did you first start volunteering in the campaign and what did you end up doing?

At first I volunteered in the local Ithaca, NY office for about a month leading up to Super Tuesday. I went door-to-door, made phone calls, took lawn signs around to people who requested them. It was exciting and fun to get out and meet people and I tried to be a good ambassador for Orthodox Judaism. Then I joined "Jews for Obama" one of the social networking groups that was (and is) part of MyBarackObama.com. We started out as an e-mail list, then the group developed a logo, and a couple members set up an independent website to combat the smears against Obama - one of the founders of the website called the campaign against Obama "Schvitzboating". We also started a newsletter and eventually put out 17 issues and collected over 4,000 subscribers who are now all part of our network of contacts. After the Democratic Convention, the Jewish Outreach arm of the Obama campaign became more active and started to organize some events through their Jewish Community Leadership Councils (JCLC). I wrote to one of the organizers who sent out an invitation to a NYC JCLC event and explained that it is too far for Upstate NYers to go downstate to participate and we should do something upstate. He wrote back and said, "Why don't you organize it? Put together some people and we'll have a conference call on strategy". So I did, I was amazed at the level of trust required to do grassroots organizing quickly. There is not a lot of time for interviews and so on.

Within a couple weeks of the first conference call, Jeremy Goldberg (the NY/NJ/ Conn Jewish Outreach Director for the campaign) took me in as a member of his team and gave me the title of Upstate NY Jewish Outreach Volunteer Coordinator. I also started working on the Orthodox Jewish Outreach team in the campaign. In the last month and a half, I worked like crazy to organize phonebanks in five Upstate NY cities (to make peer-to-peer calls to Jewish voters in various swing states). I went to a new city every Sunday and trained a group I had recruited and ran a phonebank with them that day. I had them repeat the phonebank the next Sunday with a volunteer leader I had trained and an Obama field person while I went to a new city (or two) and ran a phonebank with a new group of volunteers. Using this approach I built an Upstate NY Jewish volunteer base of about 200 people. Using contacts from Ithaca (my home) or the cities I had already visited, I figured out who the Jewish community machers (doers) were in each new city and then worked with them to make scores of phone calls to recruit new volunteers. It was very exciting and wonderful to meet so many warm and motivated Jewish people from all over the Upstate region. We made more than 8000 Jewish peer-to-peer phone calls in the final four Sundays before the last weekend of the campaign. I spent the last few days of the campaign in the general campaign phonebank in Ithaca making calls and organizing data entry volunteers. On election day, we had about 45 volunteers in a room at the Hilton all day and made more than 35,000 phone calls. By the end of the day, when the volunteers got together and listened to Obama's victory speech and he talked about how we had made it happen - we knew that it was true. The feeling in the room was one of real dedication to the mission of healing and rebuilding the country together. Now, we have to keep that feeling going.

PJV: Doesn't the aligning of Orthodox Jews with right wing politics that is happening in the U.S. seem odd? Take for example how some express complete opposition to abortion. Judaism explicitly requires abortion when the fetus is a threat to the mother's survival, among a number of situations where abortion might be ruled halachically valid on a case by case basis, such as a rape.

Obama, when he spoke about a lot of these wedge issues, really laid out a template for how to approach things like abortion. During his acceptance speech in Denver he said that we can all agree that we want to see abortion and unwanted pregnancies reduced. His point was that, even if we have different views about how to go about that; we can and should work together to find practical and effective solutions to reducing abortion. Some Orthodox Jews were angry when Obama said that the question of when life begins is "above my pay scale" but I appreciated that response. He is a religious man and he genuinely believes that this question should be answered privately in consultation with one's own religious advisor and family members. There are a lot of emotions involved in these things and I think he recognizes that. Fundamentally, the President-Elect is focused on what can be done effectively by government and how government can be a force for good. To this end, he is willing to consider a wide range of policies. For example, he wants public schools to be strengthened and is not afraid to pursue real reform in that system. However, Obama was very clear during that campaign about his willingness to support alternative models of education that can also be effective - not as an alternative to the public school system overall but as a complement in some situations. Obviously, this is an area where Orthodox Jews have a keen interest and we will have to work on how to express our needs and concerns about schooling to the Obama administration. The bottom line is that he is in favor of what is going to work well for all of our children and that is another reason that I supported him so energetically.

PJV: What is an issue that you would like to focus your activism on when the new administration takes office?

I hope to work with the Jewish network we created in the campaign (to be called the Jewish Grassroots Action Network now that the campaign is over) on a wide variety of topics. However, I'm very concerned about the development of good sustainable jobs in the U.S. and how to pursue worker's rights while creating a positive environment for business at the same time. This is an interest I have had professionally for some time and is one of the themes in my PhD thesis. I am also concerned about the relationship that the Orthodox Jewish community has with workers. Given the great history of Jewish immigrants to the U.S. struggling to start the labor movement here, we should follow the spirit of their example and squarely face the challenge of improving the Orthodox community's relationship with legal and illegal workers. The Torah requires us to pay workers fair wages and pay them on time. I have not studied the details of these halachos (Torah laws) and how they are applied in a modern economy but it seems to me that we have to do a better job in this area as a community and as a country. We need a guest workers program in this country so that people can come and work here with dignity and go and visit their families. If that means that wages will increase to the extent that some large Jewish families will not be able to afford help which they badly need, perhaps the community can organize a way to subsidize wages of domestic helpers. That way, the community will support the value of having large families while also fulfilling a Jewish obligation to treat workers properly.

PJV: You describe yourself as born into a politically intellectual family that was not religious

We had intensive training in how to think things through. My parents are completely assimilated Jews, my father (whose parents immigrated from Hungary as children) is an intense intellectual and a very disciplined person. He was a journalist for the Chicago Sun-Times for 30 years and was involved in some Libertarian activism for a time.

After the Peace Corps in Tanzania for three years, I went to Israel as part of my travels on the way home. I went looking for my Jewish roots and I found them. I remember sitting on a regular city bus in Tel Aviv and bursting into tears because the bus was full of Jewish people and I was suddenly overwhelmed by being together with them in our own country. I stayed in the Old city in Jerusalem for a couple of weeks that included Purim and decided to become observant - from zero to everything all at once! After leaving Israel, I went to New York City for Pesach and stayed in Monsey with a Rabbi's family for the first traditional seder of my entire life. After that I went home to my poor parents after not being home for three years (they did visit me in Africa) and I insisted on keeping strictly kosher. They thought I had lost my mind. The rest is a story for a different time but after years of trying to figure out where I fit in, I married a Lubavitcher and here I am.

After we were married, we worked part time together doing hashgacha (kosher supervision) for our local Chabad shliach (representative) at a small liberal arts college and we met many wonderful Jewish students. That was my first real exposure to Judaism which was not Orthodox as we worked closely with the Hillel to provide kosher food for their events. It was a great experience getting to know the undergraduate students participating in the Hillel program and coming to eat our food at the kosher kitchen. In contrast to that set of relationships - which were based on a sort student/teacher dynamic given our greater age and other aspects of the situation, the Obama campaign put me into a grassroots organizing situation with peers from all different parts of the Jewish panorama. When I went to the Upstate New York cities to organize phonebanks some of the Jewish volunteers told me they had never met anyone Orthodox before and that I was breaking down their preconceived notions of what an Orthodox person is like.

PJV: What does it take to succeed in building a truly inclusive Jewish grassroots organization?

In Jewish grassroots organizing, I believe the two key components for success - besides lots of hard work and little sleep - are respect and patience. If you are very upset about what someone is saying it's hard to listen, people fly off the handle over political arguments and write crazy emails and send them without taking a minute to think it over (especially when they are tired). Part of our determination to implement this at the grassroots is that Obama led by example with a very calm demeanor and we wanted to emulate that in our organization. We sometimes see national level leaders using very out-of-control rhetoric or encouraging it, for example, when Sarah Palin didn't say anything when people at her rallies shouted about killing Obama (G-d forbid). Or when Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barack recently used vicious rhetoric at a rally in Rabin's memory calling Jews living in Judea and Samaria a cancer that has to be cut out of Israel (G-d forbid). This kind of leadership breeds hatred between people with different views and makes it very hard to create a truly broad-based grassroots organization. Unchecked anger is very destructive to a group communicating through an e-mail list. We are blessed to have had from the beginning an incredible moderator for our e-mail list - Jonathan Kamens (who is one of the co-founders of Jews for Obama). He is on sabbatical from day-to-day organizing and newsletter writing but continues to moderate the listserv which is critical for the health and success of our group and I discuss all major decisions with him as my co-leader. I think we need to put greater emphasis on bringing a spirit of cooperation to the table as Jews in our every day lives. One can have a strong opinion in his/her approach to Judaism or Israeli politics and also be able and willing to love other Jews across the divisions. For me this is very much in line with what the Lubavitcher Rebbe would expect from me as a Chassidic political activist. If we get together as Jews to work on fundamental shared goals such as improving education for our kids, ensuring that everyone has access to affordable health care, growing our local and national economies to create strong job-providing businesses that reward hard work fairly, keeping our environment clean, and so on, we will get to know and respect each other in the process and G-d willing be more accepting of each other's views in areas where we are divided such as religious observance, social wedge issues, or Israel policy.

PJV: What's next organizationally?

We will be having a series of great events in Washington, DC for the presidential inauguration: a multi-denominational Shabbaton including many different shuls close to Silver Spring, MD (1/16-17), a workshop for people from across the country who engaged in Jewish grassroots activism during the campaign (1/18-1/19: 'Jewish Grassroots Activism during the Obama campaign: Lessons Learned and Planning for the Road Ahead'), a celebration on Sunday night, and a couple of options for viewing the Swearing-In ceremony for those who want to brave the crowds and those who do not. We do not have access to any tickets so people who get tickets and those who do not will be meeting up to gather early in the morning and experience the ceremony together. Some of us who have little kids or don't wish to shlep out with the crowds will gather to see the ceremony at a location in the neighborhood where we will have all of our events. Click here for a full schedule of events. Last but not least, as a leader of the Jewish Grassroots Action Network I am working with other grassroots leaders from different demographics to form a coalition of grassroots organizations that were born during the Obama campaign with the goal of coordinating our groups with each other and with the Obama administration. So we will G-d willing have exciting news to report on that front some time soon."

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