UPDATE: D.C. elections lawsuit splits Jews
Washington Jewish Week
UPDATE: The American Jewish Committee sides with Herzfeld; says DCBOEE needs to do more.
Rabbi Barry Freundel of Orthodox Kesher Israel Congregation in the District sides with the JCRC. See below.
As I noted last week, a Washington, D.C. Special Election has been scheduled for April 26, the final day of Passover, which, obviously, poses a problem for D.C.'s Jews.
The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics made clear that the date can't possibly be altered. The Home Rule Act, according to elections officials, "specifies that a special election must be held on the first Tuesday that is at least 114 days after a vacancy occurs on the Council."
Still, the DCBOEE maintains that it's doing all it can to accommodate Jews, including extending early voting hours.
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the District's Orthodox Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue says the elections board has not done nearly enough -- though other portions of the Jewish community disagree with him.
Herzfeld, however, has sued the elections board, insisting they either change the date or keep polling places open until at least 10 P.M.
Herzfeld maintains that the DCBOEE has the power to change the date, they simply don't care to.
"They have the ability, and when they argue that [they can't], they're being disingenuous."
When Herzfeld first approached the elections board about altering the date, "their first response was, 'How are we supposed to know it's Passover?' " (*Elections board officials counter that their calenders do include Passover and that they were aware of the conflict. They didn't realize, however, the religious significance of the final day of Passover until it was pointed out by multiple parties.)
Even "my son's Little League knows it's Passover," Herzfeld added.
The DCBOEE, which didn't immediately return requests seeking comment, informed me last week that it's doing all it can on a shoestring budget.
"Voters who cannot cast a ballot at their assigned polling place can choose to cast an absentee ballot by mail or in person at the Board's office during the two weeks prior to the election," officials maintained.
Herzfeld says it's like putting a Band-Aid on a bleeding artery.
"They're doing stuff that has the appearance of accommodation, but it's not," he said.
The issue seems to have split portions of the Jewish community.
In fact, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington is pleased with the elections board, and said so publicly -- a move that some view as a slap in Herzfeld's face.
"As the umbrella arm of over 100 Jewish institutions throughout the region, the Jewish Community Relations Council expresses its thanks to the DC Board of Elections & Ethics for its efforts to accommodate our community," Harvey Reiter, the JCRC's president, said in a statement. "Not only has the Board extended early in person voting hours at its headquarters from now through election day, but it has reached out to Washington DC synagogues to inform the Jewish community of this accommodation and of the availability of absentee voting."
Asked what he makes of the JCRC's statement, Herzfeld said, "everybody's entitled to their opinion. ... They might not be as sensitive to the issue as I am."
Andrew Apostolou, a JCRC board member (and all around community rabble rouser), issued a statement to me on the matter earlier today. In it, he takes his own group to task for not siding with Herzfeld.
"It is disappointing that the JCRC has issued a statement that does not support Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld's sincere campaign to enable Orthodox Jews to properly participate in the April 26, 2011 election," Apostolou said. " I disagree strongly with the JCRC's position. Instead of assisting Rabbi Herzfeld, the JCRC's stance undermines him."
Apostolou adds: "To make matters worse, the JCRC's position was taken without full consultation with Rabbi Herzfeld. This was disrespectful to Rabbi Herzfeld. Nor did the JCRC fully consult with me, an Orthodox board member who is an observant Jew and resident in Washington D.C."
UPDATE: The AJC wrote yesterday to the elections board to express their "concern" about the issue. Like Herzfeld, AJC says that either the date should be changed, or polling places should remain open late. It's not fair to put the burden on observant Jews, AJC says.
But Rabbi Barry Freundel sees it differently. In a declaration offered to the D.C. courts in relation to Herzfeld's lawsuit, Freundel writes: "While it is unfortunate by operation of law the election falls on the last day of Passover, and I am, therefore, unable to vote at a polling station, ... the [DCBOEE] has made a fair and reasonable accommodation for me."
Seems like D.C.'s Orthodox rabbis are split on this one.