Polls and pandemics: Meet Baltimore Jews working behind the scenes of Election Day

Sam Novey, co-founder of Baltimore Votes, encourages everyone to vote early and safely
Sam Novey, co-founder of Baltimore Votes, encourages everyone to vote early and safely (David Stuck).

It’s that time of year again, when campaign signs starts springing up on well-manicured lawns, fundraisers call cell phones asking for donations to a particular super PAC and the airwaves are bombarded with political ads depicting one candidate as a paragon of moral virtue and the other as the antagonist in a black-and-white horror film.

While there are certainly reasons to feel apprehensive about election season, that doesn’t mean there aren’t people on all sides of the political spectrum with honest beliefs who are working hard to see their vision for their community made real.

Leading activism: Gary Applebaum

Gary Applebaum of the Republican Jewish Coalition
Gary Applebaum of the Republican Jewish Coalition (Courtesy of Gary Applebaum).

A resident of Pasadena, Dr. Gary Applebaum ran for a seat in the 3rd Congressional District in 2006 at the request of then-Gov. Bob Ehrlich.

As a physician, Applebaum felt that Congress would have benefited from his experience in the field of health care and wanted to find free market avenues for improving the way health care is financed. He also felt very strongly about the American-Israeli relationship and hoped that his time on the board of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore and his previous visits to Israel would bolster that connection.

While the seat was eventually won by Democrat John Sarbanes, the campaign established Applebaum’s connections with the Republican Jewish Coalition, which supported his candidacy. As a “lay leader” of RJC, Applebaum focuses much of his efforts on helping to get out the vote by calling members of the Jewish community in battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania. In this capacity, he works to explain the importance of voting and to answer any questions callees might have about the Trump administration’s record.

“I’ve studied the Torah a lot, and I look at the basic fundamental values, and I think the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights are all very much based on Judeo-Christian principles,” said Applebaum, a member of both Beth Tfiloh Congregation and Kol Shalom. “Most people who I know who are more trained in Torah, trained in our people’s beliefs and fundamental values via understanding the Bible and the Torah, tend to lean politically more conservative.”

Applebaum also works to help fundraise on behalf of Republican candidates, particularly for the Senate and the House of Representatives, he said. In that role, he reaches out to individuals with conservative viewpoints, encouraging them to write checks to either the RJC’s political action committee or directly to the candidate’s campaigns for things such as political advertisements.

“Campaigns have gotten incredibly expensive,” Applebaum said, “so making sure that the candidate you believe would be best in the role has sufficient funding to be competitive is extremely important.”

Had the pandemic not arrived on the nation’s shores, fundraising this year would likely have consisted of numerous in-person events in Washington, D.C. and individual districts, Applebaum said. With social distancing requirements, though, fundraising has largely entailed either virtual events or one-to-one communication.

According to Applebaum, the Founding Fathers believed that the Constitution would only be acceptable for a people with a religious background. He believes in the importance of limiting the power of the government, and he is concerned that the Democratic Party would limit the liberty of people on issues such as school choice and personal finances. Other issues of concern for him include economic prosperity, energy independence and low fuel prices,

“It’s economic policy, it’s jobs, it’s wages, it’s energy policy, it’s educational policy. In my mind, those have all been exceedingly well-handled over the last three-and-a-half years, and Americans know it,” Applebaum said, “and we’re talking pre-COVID, ‘cause that [is] sort of a big asterisk in this election.”

Volunteering for campaigns: Noel Levy

Noel Levy, volunteer for the Biden-Harris campaign
Noel Levy, volunteer for the Biden-Harris campaign (Courtesy of Noel Levy).

On the other side of the aisle is Noel Levy, a Pikesville resident who volunteers for the Biden-Harris campaign. Originally from Texas, Levy moved to the Baltimore area in 1993, as he had married a Maryland woman who had no intention of living in the Lone Star State. A member of Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation who worked as a lien aggregator at the accounting firm Charles Krengel, P.A. until the pandemic hit his industry, Levy uses his time to distribute campaign signs, make phone calls and send postcards on behalf of the campaign.

Levy recalled his first experience in politics in Amarillo, Texas, in 1969 at 15 years old.

“The incumbent mayor of Amarillo was J. Ernest Stroud, and he was a John Bircher and an avowed anti-Semite,” Levy said. Stroud would be opposed by a local petrochemical engineer, L. O’Brien Thompson. The local synagogue, Temple B’nai Israel, organized some children to leaflet the community and put up signs on behalf of Thompson’s campaign, then they went out for pizza afterward.

“That was my first experience with politics,” Levy said. “I put a big Thompson sign in my bedroom window. We lost the election, but I was bitten by the bug, and here we are today.”

Issues of importance to Levy include the treatment refugees receive, perceived abuses of power, climate change and what he referred to as the “botched handling of the whole pandemic,” asking “what was it, 200,000 Americans that didn’t need to die?”

Levy also listed the economy as a major concern, saying it was currently in free fall and that he personally has not worked since March. “They’ve closed the courthouses, so I can’t access the computer banks,” he said. “So until they can put this pandemic behind us, I don’t think I’ll be working.”

Prior to the pandemic, though, his business had tripled. His office deals with taxes, and he surmised that people were reasoning that if “the President isn’t going to pay his taxes, why should anyone pay their taxes?”

Asked whether he saw a connection between his Jewish and political identities, Levy said, “They line up perfectly. There is tikkun olam, heal the world, and that’s something the Jewish people have focused on for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

Levy noted that he had already dropped off his absentee ballot at a location in Hunt Valley, along with those of his wife and mother-in-law. He encouraged everyone to vote in a similar manner.

Getting out the vote: Sam Novey

Sam Novey, co-founder of Baltimore Votes
Sam Novey, co-founder of Baltimore Votes (David Stuck).

Sam Novey, a member of Beth Am and resident of Charles Village, is the co-founder of Baltimore Votes, which is comprised of a coalition of different organizations, including the League of Women Voters and the No Boundaries Coalition. According to Novey, Baltimore Votes has been working to encourage and assist with voter participation. In the past, they have partnered with Repair the World Baltimore to throw block parties at polling locations, organized training sessions to teach residents how to vote by mail and recruited more than 700 poll workers for this year’s election.

Novey encouraged anyone looking to avoid public facilities to request an absentee ballot and to bring it to their nearest ballot dropbox, early voting center or Election Day voting center. He also strongly recommended the use of masks and face shields and engaging in proper social distancing when going to any in-person polling locations. Lastly, he stressed the importance of voting as early as possible, whether by mail or in person, as it helps local election administrators count the ballots “in a timely way, if they get in earlier, rather than coming in as sort of a flood right at the end of the process.”

One thing Novey regrets about modern-day politics is how some voters are essentially ignored by the politicians.

“I’ve worked on a number of campaigns over the years,” he said, “and one thing that you see when you go out and knock on doors with candidates for office is that they skip the doors of the people who didn’t vote. They literally just don’t listen to the people who didn’t vote.

“And that feels really wrong in a place like Baltimore,” Novey continued, “where so much [of] what’s wrong and unjust in this city is about systemically excluding the voices of some of our neighbors for so many years.”

That sense of inherent injustice is at the core of what motivates Novey to strive so hard for a political system responsive to people’s needs.

Novey sees similarities in how the community comes together for religious and political purposes.

“When we have a minyan, or when Jews come together in community, we believe that something sacred happens,” Novey said. “In a secular space like politics, there’s something about having everybody participate in our democracy that makes it more responsive, and then makes us more connected, and makes us able … to experience the love and dignity and connection that comes from seeing our own humanity and feeling our collective humanity.”


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