Notes from the Field: Jewish Community Canvass to Protect Trans Rights in Massachusetts

This past Sunday afternoon, the Massachusetts Jewish community showed that it’s ready, willing, and able to flex its muscle in support of transgender rights.

Despite the end-of-July heat, over 75 people representing over a dozen synagogues and Jewish organizations knocked on 1,659 doors and talked directly with 321 voters in Newton, Massachusetts (just outside of Boston) about the critical importance of the Yes on 3 campaign.

What is Yes on 3? In November 2018, voters in­ Massachusetts will be asked at the ballot box whether to uphold a 2016 state law that protects transgender people from discrimination in public places, such as restaurants, shops, and hospitals. On the ballot, the issue will officially be “ballot question No. 3.”  Anti-LGBTQ groups have deliberately targeted Massachusetts’ statewide transgender rights: A victory in a liberal state like Massachusetts would turbo-boost repeal efforts nationwide.

Keshet is leading the effort to mobilize Jewish community support for Yes on 3. Sunday’s event was cosponsored by Freedom for All MassachusettsJewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, and Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Organizations that participated included Temple Israel of Boston, Temple Shir Tikvah in (Winchester), Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, Temple Shalom of Medford, Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue, Temple Emanuel of Newton, B’nai Brith (Somerville), Moishe Kavod House Boston, Congregation Beth El Sudbury, Boston Workmen’s Circle, Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, Temple Shalom of Newton, and Temple Reyim. Temple Shalom of Newton hosted the pre-canvass training.

Last weekend was the first specifically Jewish Yes on 3 canvass day, and turnout well exceeded the expectations of Keshet Advocacy Campaign Specialist Mimi Micner. Canvassers ranged in age from preadolescent to septuagenarian. Parents showed up with their teenage children. A substantial contingent of young people in their 20s and 30s affiliated with Jewish organizations for young adults also stepped up. “It was really energizing. It showed me that there is a lot of support for trans rights in the Jewish community and that there is even more potential to do more work as Jews on this issue,” says Micner, who is also a 5th-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College.

Kaden Mohamed, a transgender Keshet staffer and co-chair of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition Steering Committee, says, “It felt very reassuring. I’m concerned about how close the polls are, and that people still don’t know that the issue is on the ballot, and that they should vote ‘yes.’ This was one of the biggest canvass days yet in support of Yes on 3. It’s cool to see the Jewish community show up in such great numbers.”

Most of the Newton residents canvassers spoke to were unaware that Massachusetts’ transgender rights are in danger and grateful for the information about Yes on 3. “The most important part of our work especially in Newton was, more than half of the conversations I had, people did not know [Yes on 3] was on the ballot, and once they found out it was on the ballot, they would be strong supporters. …Simply educating people that it was on the ballot and how to vote given how the question is worded was very important,” says Nicci Meadow, 54, an artist and Congregation Beth-El Sudbury congregant who canvassed.

Meadow, who mentioned tikkun olam as one of the principles that motivated her, also saw the canvass day as an opportunity for bridge-building within the Jewish community. “I identify as androgynous, and I’m also bisexual, and I intentionally sought out a white man [to canvass with]. It was really wonderful to work together and share our nervousness. We really encouraged each other and supported each other. It was a personal opportunity to find common ground with a stranger. We talked about our teenagers.”

Micner said the “bathroom issue” only came up a handful of times but that canvassers were armed with fact-based talking points. Opponents have tried to scuttle trans rights by falsely suggesting that transgender people pose a danger in public restrooms. In Massachusetts, there have been no upticks in safety incidents in bathrooms since transgender protections came into effect in 2016. There has also not been any increase in safety incidents in bathrooms in Massachusetts cities that have had a version of this law in place, some for a decade or more, including Boston.

Passing Yes on 3 could have a big impact on the life of one of the day’s youngest canvassers, 6-year-old Hallel Cohen-Goldberg, who identifies as non-binary. (The family uses both “they” and “he” pronouns for Hallel.) Hallel was struggling with the idea that some people might not be accepting of non-binary or transgender people—including their 3-year-old sister. “I explained that we have an opportunity to go door-to-door and share with people who you are, and explain why it makes sense for people who are gender non-binary or transgender to have all the rights to do what they need to do, to go to school, go to the park,” says Hallel’s mother Shira Cohen-Goldberg, 40. “…He was game! He wanted to do it. Every single time I said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’, they said, ‘Yes, yes, yes, I do.’ ”

Cohen-Goldberg and Hallel went to one house where they met a woman who proceeded to introduce them to her 9-year-old non-binary child. “It was an incredible experience,” says Cohen-Goldberg of the whole day. “Hallel was very reassured. People were very positive. [Newton residents] said, ‘This is ridiculous. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t uphold transgender rights.’ That was very comforting for him.”

For more information on Yes on 3 and how your community can get involved, contact Mimi Micner, Keshet’s Advocacy and Campaigns Specialist and Rabbinic Intern at mimi@keshetonline.org.