I love talking to strangers. I take after my mother that way. I love to learn about all types of people and hear their stories. It is because I care about others and want to know what makes them tick. Canvassing comes easily to me. Knocking on peoples’ doors to speak to them about a topic that is meaningful to me has always been exciting. I’ve met some incredible folks over my years as a volunteer with various campaigns and engaged in deep, effective conversations. When I was invited to canvass with RAC-OH in support of Issue 1, the Ohio Safe and Healthy Communities Amendment, it was the perfect opportunity to engage with my community and Cincinnatians at large.
The frame of the canvass was through a Jewish lens. I’ve felt like Issue 1 was a Jewish issue from the moment I heard about it. This amendment clearly supports our value of t’shuva, of giving people another chance. People who struggle with drug addiction are human beings and their disease is not what defines them. They deserve a chance to get clean, pay for what they’ve done wrong, and get a good job to support themselves and their families. Issue 1 is also about allowing people to better themselves by earning time off of their sentences when doing a rehabilitation or education program in prison. Since about 90% of people who are incarcerated get out eventually anyway, I would rather those folks have the opportunity to change while they are incarcerated, so they are productive members of society upon return.
Seeing 60 Jewish community members turn up ready to fight for the rights of all citizens to live happy, clean, and productive lives was such a joy. Connecting with the Jewish community over this issue has been incredibly important to me. Hearing from white Jews that they could see how disproportionately felony drug possession charges have affected Black and Brown communities actually gave me some hope. This showed that people have been really wrestling with their white Jewish privilege. Beyond this, we heard from members of the Jewish community who have been especially impacted by the opioid crisis and the ways in which peoples’ lives have been touched by the disease of addiction.
This was a particularly interesting experience because many of the neighborhoods in which our teams canvassed used to be Jewish until Black folks started moving in. Some of the people who were there even grew up in these neighborhoods. That is one of the many more challenging facts with which White Jews need to engage—that we have racism in our history, that we were a big part of White flight, and that not all Jews are White.
Some days of canvassing are better than others. This day I didn’t have a lot of productive conversations with people, but I knew I was making a difference just by being present. The people who canvassed with me, including a number of Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion students, registered voters and informed them about how crucial Issue 1 would be to freeing people. As Election Day approaches, I continue to think about that afternoon. Nearly all the rabbis in the community were there and Jews from many different synagogues. I feel a profound sense of gratitude that the Reform Jewish community in Ohio is engaging with this issue. It is one more way that we can actually repair the brokenness in our communities.
Alicia Harris is a rabbinic student at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, where she will be ordained in 2020. She serves as the Rabbinic Fellow at The Valley Temple, where she is the community organizer for the Tikkun Olam Committee. Alicia volunteers with The AMOS Project, Ohio Organizing Collaborative, and RAC-OH, and is a member of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism.