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Pennsylvania’s primary election is at the start of Passover. Why some Jewish voters feel disenfranchised

The Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley hosts a prayer vigil Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023, at the Jewish Community Center in Allentown in response to the Hamas attacks in Israel.(Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)
The Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley hosts a prayer vigil Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023, at the Jewish Community Center in Allentown in response to the Hamas attacks in Israel.(Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)

After a series of unsuccessful attempts to change the date of Pennsylvania’s primary election, voting will take place April 23.

Yet the fourth Tuesday in April also happens to be the start of Passover, one of the most important Jewish holidays that, over the course of eight days, commemorates the biblical story of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt.

The first two and last two days of Passover are “full-fledged” holidays, according to , meaning observant Jews do not go to work, drive or participate in most public activities during those days. That would include casting a vote in person.

“It’s certainly putting significant barriers for a community that you wouldn’t necessarily have of anybody else,” said Aaron Gorodzinsky, director of campaign and security planning at the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley. “You wouldn’t hold the primary election during Easter Sunday.”

Around 8,000 Jewish people live in the Lehigh Valley, part of approximately And some studies indicate that Jews are more likely to vote than the average American: For example, according to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, around 85% of Jewish Americans voted in the 2012 election, compared to 54% nationwide.

Several polling places in synagogues across Pennsylvania are moving elsewhere because of Passover, . Rabbi Michael Singer of Congregation Brith Shalom, a Bethlehem synagogue and polling place, said voters would be redirected to the synagogue’s social hall, instead of the main sanctuary where voting normally takes place.

“We are going to be in the midst of services while people are coming in to vote,” Singer said.

While the two 2024 presidential nominees have already been decided thanks to earlier primaries in other states, Pennsylvania has several competitive primary elections for statewide races, including attorney general, auditor general and treasurer. In addition, three Republicans are vying for the nomination to face U.S. Rep. Susan Wild in the Lehigh Valley’s 7th District. The Lehigh Valley also has three competitive primaries for state House seats.

It’s frustrating for candidates like Mark Pinsley, the Lehigh County controller who is running in a competitive Democratic primary to become auditor general. Pinsley, who is Jewish, said he will be unable to campaign on the day of the primary because he will be celebrating the holiday with family.

“Normally I would be out and about on Election Day, and this year I won’t,” Pinsley said. “It makes it very difficult, because you kind of feel like that’s the day, everything culminates in that day.”

Many candidates also host election watch parties after polls close, which could conflict with Passover services.

State Rep. Jared Solomon, one of five Democrats running for state attorney general, said Jews on primary election day will have to choose between “civic engagement” and “religious values.” Solomon, who is Jewish, is one of the co-authors of a House bill that would have changed the date of the primary to April 2.

Solomon said most legislators agreed that the date should change, but were never able to come to a consensus as to what the new date should be. Senate Republicans supported March 19, and a coalition of county officials that administer elections — worried they did not have time to prepare for the earlier date — said April 9 or 16 would work best.

“Sometimes the hardest things to accomplish are when the vast majority of legislators agree,” Solomon said. “Because you agree, but then you begin to disagree, not on the overarching principle but on some of the more thorny details.”

Lehigh Valley and Pennsylvania Jews are facing the consequences. Solomon declined to say whether the holiday would take him away from campaigning the day of the election, but said “I take my faith seriously.”

“It’s unfortunate that this election forces everyone to pick,” Solomon said.

The date is not just affecting Jewish candidates, either. Observant Jews who normally vote in person, canvass for their preferred candidate or work at polling places will not be able to do so.

It has led some Jews to feel disenfranchised, according to Singer, who is also a democracy advocate who has helped organize get out the vote efforts in elections.

“It is a major conflict and it could have been avoided,” Singer said.

Jewish advocates and candidates now are trying to get the word out to let fellow Jews know that they should vote by mail if they plan to closely observe Passover. Gorodzinsky said many Jews in the community do not know that the primary will take place over the holiday, and could miss the April 16 deadline to vote by mail.

Wild, who is running unopposed for her fourth term in Congress, said she understands why people feel the date is “disrespectful.” But Wild, who is Jewish, said she hopes the date won’t heavily affect primary voter turnout, since not all Jews closely observe Passover for two days and the option to vote by mail is available.

But even with the mail option, some advocates say it is disappointing that the election will take place on a day where observant Jews cannot participate civically by other means, such as canvassing, poll watching or volunteering at the polls.

The Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley held a mail-in ballot application drive in February at the Jewish Community Center of the Lehigh Valley, encouraging observant Jews to vote by mail prior to the election.

“It certainly is getting in the way of us participating during the day, to either support the candidates that we want to support, or be together as a family and celebrating a Jewish holiday,” Gorodzinsky said. “We are finding ourselves being affected by lack of bipartisan support.”

Reporter Lindsay Weber can be reached at Liweber@mcall.com.

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