NJ women wade into politics

NJ women wade into politics

New gen of activists inspired by tikkun olam, desire to shake up current elected leadership

Jenny Ludmer and her family protested fracking at the Delaware River Basin. She is pictured with her husband, Phil, and, from left, Lily, Jocelyn, and Justin.  Photo courtesy Jenny Ludmer
Jenny Ludmer and her family protested fracking at the Delaware River Basin. She is pictured with her husband, Phil, and, from left, Lily, Jocelyn, and Justin.  Photo courtesy Jenny Ludmer

The day after Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton for president, Lisa Mandelblatt was distraught. 

“I woke up the next morning feeling like the world had ended,” she recalled. But she quickly stopped wallowing in despair. “I shook myself off and said, ‘OK, what am I going to do?’” 

Since then, the former attorney has spent much of her free time making her voice heard in the political arena. She has plotted campaign strategy with a state assembly candidate, conducted research on legislation, and called her congressman’s office so often that when staffers answer the phone, “I feel like they’re about to say, ‘Oh, it’s Lisa from Westfield,’” she said. 

Mandelblatt is one of the many women who have channeled their dismay about the election into action, even though she, like several others, had never been heavily involved in politics before. These women are not just posting comments on Facebook or sending emails to their representatives. They are founding political groups, spearheading research projects on voting districts, and holding teach-ins about local government. A number of grassroots groups have sprung up in New Jersey, including NJ 11th For Change, Indivisible Princeton, Action Together New Jersey, and Essex Rising.

And several of these new leaders are motivated by their Jewish faith.

Olga Starr had “never done anything political” before helping start STAND Central New Jersey, an organization that fights for social justice, economic opportunity, and human rights on the local and state level. The group, which held its first meeting in December, has more than 1,000 members in Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, and Somerset counties. Most members are new to political organizing.

STAND “went with the philosophy that all politics is local,” said Starr, a portrait photographer who lives in East Brunswick. “We’re trying to create civic engagement from the bottom up, by educating voters. There’s a lot of anger and fear. People don’t know where to start. We see our role as helping people take back their power.”

Starr attended her first town council meeting in February and quickly got up to speed about local issues. Like many people, she knew little about the impact of local government or the state legislature. Now, she and fellow activists review the agenda before each city council meeting, and she recently became a Democratic committeewoman in East Brunswick.

The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Starr moved to the United States with her family at the age of 8 to escape religious persecution in the Soviet Union. “As a Jewish refugee, I feel responsible for fighting for others,” she said. “When we came to this country, we received assistance — Medicaid, food stamps, school lunch — and if it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t have been able to get to where we are. Now those things are threatened.”

Starr now spends about 20 hours a week on politics. She has met with gubernatorial candidates, helped run a teach-in on “How to Talk to your Legislator,” and strategized on how the group can have influence on the issues it cares about. “Basically everything else — with the exception of my job and my kids — has gone by the wayside. It’s flipped my life completely upside down.”

Five days after the election, Marci Kleinberg-Bandelli
cofounded Westfield 20/20, a group of activists who use Facebook to vent and exchange information on opportunities for activism. The mission of the group, which has more than 1,800 members, is to hold elected officials accountable for their voting records. Its name is a shout-out to 20/20 hindsight, as well as the year of the next presidential election. 

“So many people tell me, ‘I’ve never done anything like this before. It has become a lifeline to sanity,’” said Kleinberg-Bandelli, a psychotherapist.

Westfield 20/20 has 12 committees that research and plan action on issues such as education, immigration, and health care. The group is planning a get-out-the-vote operation for the June 6 gubernatorial primary, and extensive campaigning for Democratic candidates in this year’s local elections. “We need to get people elected in our state who are going to represent our values,” said Kleinberg-Bandelli, who has been an advocate for increased gun control in the past.

There has been a surge of New Jersey women interested in running for office, said Truscha Quatrone, executive director of Emerge New Jersey, which offers training for Democratic women seeking elected office. Since November, the organization has seen a 70 percent increase in the number of women who want to enroll in its programs, where participants meet one weekend a month for six months to learn about public speaking, fundraising, marketing, ethical leadership, and other topics. The numbers “at every level of Democratic participation are up dramatically,” she said. Twenty-two women are currently running for the state legislature, which is a record, according to Quatrone.

Jenny Ludmer, who lives in Princeton, was planning to return to work outside her home as a science writer and researcher now that her three children are in school full-time, but instead she has devoted herself, for the first time, to activism.

“I’ve always held political views, but mainly I would whine about them at dinner parties,” she said. But, she realized, “I couldn’t complain about government if I wasn’t willing to jump in and try and enact change myself.” That meant conquering her fear of public speaking, a decision she came to on election night. She signed up for Toastmasters, a public speaking club, and is now so comfortable in front of a crowd that she is leading workshops.

She is spearheading a research project for STAND with 100 volunteers who are assembling data on central New Jersey’s 13 legislative districts and 170 town governments to craft strategies for voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote campaigns. 

Her work is driven by the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world. “I want to leave the world a better place for my kids,” she said. At a recent meeting, Ludmer was accompanied by her 7-year-old daughter, who played with crayons in the back. When it was over, her daughter said, “Mom, you led this meeting, didn’t you?” Recalled Ludmer, “I didn’t realize it until then, but I am being a role model for my children.”

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