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Agencies help elderly navigate voting-by-mail
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Agencies help elderly navigate voting-by-mail

Russian immigrants among those eager to cast their ballots

With just three months to go before the 2012 vote for president, representatives of the Essex County Clerk and Board of Elections assisted elderly voters Aug. 7 at four residences of the Jewish Community Housing Corporation.

The intention is to register residents who have changed addresses and to enable those who wish to vote to submit their ballots by mail.

“It is a good opportunity to reach out to seniors in independent living who have difficulty with mobility,” said Marnie Kean, a social worker at the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest who organized the visits from county officials. “This will give them more access and help them feel empowered to do what they’ve done in the past.”

JFS is a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.

Kean works in the JFS HouseCalls program, which provides social workers and nurses to seniors’ homes to help them age safely in place for as long as possible.

HouseCalls works with resident managers at the JCHC houses, the nursing staff from Overlook Medical Center, and the Cooperman JCC in West Orange.

A request from a Russian-born resident at Jewish Federation Towers in Irvington inspired Kean to arrange for the election officials’ visits to the Village Apartments and B’nai B’rith Federation House in South Orange and Jewish Federation Plaza in West Orange, as well as the Irvington facility.

As they become less mobile, more and more seniors prefer to vote by what used to be called absentee ballot.

“One of them wanted to find out information about voting and how to do a mail-in ballot,” said Kean. “I said, ‘Why don’t we call the office of elections?’ and I asked them to come down.”

Some 35 former citizens of the former Soviet Union now live at Federation Towers.

“A lot of people from Russia felt powerless and weren’t able to control the politics there. Giving them the opportunity in America to vote is very important,” Kean explained.

Maria Koyman, who was born in Moscow and has lived at Federation Towers for the past 12 years, agreed.

“I voted when I lived in Russia, but in Russia it was different; it was an obligation,” she told NJ Jewish News after signing a form so that she can vote by mail.

“There, if you stay home and don’t go to the polls, people come to your apartment and insist you have to vote. Here, you have to choose Obama or Romney or somebody else. In Russia you could only vote for Brezhnev,” she said, referring to Leonid Brezhnev, who was ruling as general secretary of the Communist Party at the time she left the Soviet Union in 1981. “We had no choice.”

(Despite that, she added, “still I miss my country.”)

‘A great tool’

Caren Ford, the assistant executive director for program services at the Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest, also an agency of the federation, watched as the immigrants and other Towers residents signed up. Her agency runs citizenship classes at Federation Towers, the JCC in West Orange, and JVS headquarters in East Orange.

“Part of what we teach in our citizenship classes is voting,” Ford said. “It is a very important part of becoming an American citizen, especially today, when who you vote for can change the kind of benefits you get in the future. Seniors feel very connected to what is going on.”

“But when they get old and frail, they feel like they are losing their rights,” said Diane Klein, grants and marketing manager at JFS. “They shouldn’t have to feel that way.”

Len Sharol, a native of Moscow who said he “emigrated from Russia because there were a lot of anti-Semites over there,” is eager to help his fellow immigrants at Federation Towers cast their votes.

“We want to vote in America but some Russian-speaking people have become old and they are not able to go to the polling place,” he said. “I am going to help them sign up for ballots by mail because most of them do not speak English good.”

Benny Ramirez, an administrative aide at the Essex County Clerk’s Office, happily handed Sharol the forms he requested.

“It is a simple process to eliminate going to the polls,” he told NJJN. “If you fill this out two to three weeks before the election you will get your ballot in the mail. Then you fill out the ballot, send it in to the Board of Elections, and you’re done.

“It is a great tool, but not enough people take advantage of this. We want more people to do it because it takes the stress out of going to a polling site.”

Jewish Family Service of Metro­West serves residents of Essex, Morris, Sussex, northern Union, and southern Hudson counties, with comprehensive mental health and case management services. For more information, call 973-765-9050 or visit www.jfsmetrowest.org.

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