May 21, 2019

Getting Out the MitzVote

A poll party at USC
Photo courtesy of Hillel International

Like B’Nai Mitzvot, voting is a rite of passage. This idea was the seed for what became MitzVote, Hillel International’s nonpartisan campaign to get students on campuses across the United States excited and informed about registering to vote and voting in the midterm elections on Nov. 6.

“What we are really trying to say is that voting ought to be considered a mitzvah,” Sheila Katz, Hillel’s vice president of student engagement and leadership, told the Journal in a phone interview. “And that we have an obligation to vote, as Jews — stand up for our community and make sure we’re taking action on the things that matter to us and to our neighbors.”

The MitzVote campaign includes a fun, funny and informative video. “Today You Are A … Voter” features actors and comedians — including Joshua Malina, Lisa Edelstein, Odeya Rush, Michael Ian Black and Tim Meadows — sharing voting facts as they congratulate Hannah, the MitzVote girl, on the occasion of her first opportunity to vote.

“This is basically a mazel tov video, but instead of being for a 13-year-old, it’s for an 18-year-old,” explained Mik Moore, principal of Moore & Associates. Moore’s agency developed the creative concept with Hillel, and delivered the video, website and other elements for the MitzVote project. 

“Instead of using the video to explain something that didn’t exist, we were pretending as if this was already a thing,” Moore continued. “We really like this because it’s celebratory, inspiring and has a lot of positive energy to it.”

“We wanted to make something that non-Jews would appreciate too, and get a laugh from,” said the video’s director Jessie Kahnweiler. “I actually found that being more specific, you actually tap a broader group of people. Yeah, Jews are going to laugh at the Bubbe jokes and the Yiddish slang, but every culture has that family — that grandma, that aunt, whatever it’s about. So to me [Judaism] is synonymous with family, and that’s what we were trying to do with the spot: make it feel personal to not just Jews, but to anyone.”

Kahnweiler also loved was how everything came together.

“The goal of MitzVote is to create a simcha of participating in the democratic process.” — Sheila Katz

“We went and scouted a location [and] had no idea what the house was going to look like,” Kahnweiler said. “We walked in and there were pictures of Bubbe and Zayde and kiddish cups. It was this big Jewish house. And this was random. I really do believe, on projects like this, you are doing a mitzvah. It was cool how things all came together perfectly with the help of God and Hillel.”

The four-minute video was filmed in one day in August in the Hancock Park area of Los Angeles, and was released Sept. 6. It was just the jumping-off point for the two-month long campaign, which has support from 70 Hillel campuses and 25 national partner organizations. So far, MitzVote has reached 690,000 people and counting.  

The website (www.Mitz.Vote) is filled with resources to break down barriers students have with voting. The voting tool, set up through a partnership with TurboVote, includes new voter registration, requests for absentee ballots and text alerts. The site also has prayers for voting, instructions on how to vote together, contacts for all the campus ambassadors and more. 

“The goal of MitzVote is to create a simcha [celebration] of participating in the democratic process,” Katz said. “We followed the process of becoming Bat Mitzvah and applied it to voting.” This includes studying the ballot, a Jewish voting ritual for election day, and concluding the voting process with a large celebration.

“Poll parties” are proven to increase voter turnout by 4 percent, Katz said. Currently, 55 Hillels that are part of the MitzVote campaign are hosting or co-sponsoring poll parties. For instance, on Oct. 21, Hillels at USC, Chapman University and Cal-State Long Beach did a throwback B’nai MitzVote celebration on the USC campus, complete with voter registration, voting planning, music from when students were 13 and (of course) the hora.

At the LA Area Hillel Bnai Mitzvote event.
Photo courtesy of Hillel International

The idea for MitzVote started with a conversation between Katz and student leaders, who traveled to Washington, D.C., for the March for Our Lives rally earlier this year. While Hillel doesn’t endorse political marches, it tries to provide a Jewish experience around students’ activism. “We were hosting Havdalah at the Jefferson Memorial right after the March, and a group of students came up to me and said, ‘So what do we do now?’ ” Katz explained. 

“It prompted us to put together a [call with a] group of college students to ask them what they hoped for, what they are doing, what they want to see from Hillel International. They’re the ones who said they wanted to see us engage in this topic of voting. They wanted to be a part of something bigger than their local campus, and we responded to that.”

One of those students was Jeremy Cronig from Ohio State University, who became MitzVote’s civic engagement campaign manager. Cronig, who took the semester off and is getting academic credit for his work with Hillel, has been providing direct support to staff and students and connecting them to the campaign.

“Many Jews are passionate about helping people who have barriers in front of them, and for many of us, that’s intertwined with our Judaism,” Cornig said. “Being active, caring and educated, and participating in our democracy, our country’s foundation, is a vital piece of Jewish life today.”