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SaraKay Smullens

SaraKay Smullens

Posted: October 28, 2008 04:46 PM

Campaign Journal: Spending the Saturday Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur With Obama


It was the Saturday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, 5769-2008. My childhood rabbi, whom I adored, Dr. Uri Miller, of Beth Jacob synagogue in Baltimore, taught that the expectation of this Sabbath of Return (Shuva) was deep reflection and atonement.

My husband, Stan, and I marked the day by responding to a telephone call from one of our daughters. Her good friend was organizing groups from Washington and New York to spend days at the Philly Fishtown Obama-Biden headquarters, where volunteer help was urgently needed to canvas and register voters and locate volunteers for an understaffed and crucial Philadelphia area.

After an hour training concentrating on what to say to the residents we would meet, and how to help them to fill out voting registration forms (that had to be done in their own hand) with only three days left to do so (which staff in the Fishtown office would file for them), we were sent to six blocks in Port Richmond. Stan was born in Philadelphia, though he spent the last of his high school and all of his college years away. My first marriage, while still a graduate student, brought me to this city in 1964. Neither of us has ever before been to Port Richmond.

What we found in the blocks we were sent to was a neighborhood that had been primarily Polish, with African Americans now living there also. There were several empty and boarded up homes, and we were told by a neighborhood woman who cared for several of the kids of working moms during the week that the boarded up homes had occurred within the last couple of years. "It has gotten bad here, so bad," she told us, explaining that we would not find volunteers as everyone was either working several jobs every hour they could or taking care of kids.

It was obvious that Stan and I did not live in the area, and I thought that people would not open doors, and if they did, they would not be welcoming. Was I ever wrong!

During our training we had been given thoughtful written pages of what to say in almost any or every situation. However, within moments we discarded our pages, explained we were from the Obama-Biden campaign, and followed the give and take of unscripted conversation. In return, we received openness, hospitality and appreciation.

Neither of us had ever heard Obama speak in person, much less met him. Yet those we greeted responded as if the candidates themselves had sent us to them. They were gratified that a political team cared about their lives and concerns.

As couples signed voter registration forms, or told us they were already registered, they spoke of their lives, and how hard it all had become, how hopeless, how scared they were about themselves, about losing their jobs and their homes like so many of their neighbors, about future of their kids.

And then there were the kids, themselves, so friendly, telling us what they were going to be on Halloween, how they looked forward to the candy, where they went to school. The little ones loved school, not their older counterparts. "But you're going to stay in," I urged. "Oh, yeah," was the common response. "Oh, yeah," said their parents.

No one treated us like outsiders. We were guests. At lunch time we went to a corner store for a sandwich and a salad, opened the back of our station wagon and tailgated. That's when the neighbors came to us, to say that we had picked a good store and that my chef salad looked particularly good (it was!), and that's where the kids continued their conversations.

During training, we were told not to enter the homes. This was, of course, wise counsel. But when we were asked in by individual and couples, who were so grateful that somebody cared, we could not be rude. Usually, we were invited to an area inside the door away from the steps, where conversations could be more personal.

But we also went into one living room, where an adult son who temporarily living with his invalid mom, signed the registration form. His mother was on a sofa and told us that her husband had died four months ago and that they had been married for 54 years. "I can't stand it without him," she explained, eyes misting, face exceedingly jaundiced. Stan, a physician, nodded to me, acknowledging silently what I knew: liver cancer; she would die within days.

That's when our host pointing to the vase that held her husband's ashes resting above the fire place surrounded by family photos whispered, "It is very bad for my sons now. I can't stand leaving my family with so little. And then, turning to my husband, she asked, "Do you think Obama really cares?"

"He does," my husband said.

"Are you sure?"

"I am."

"Will he change things?"

"He is very smart, serious and determined the perfect person for our times. He will do everything he possibly can."

"You know," said this frail woman, "you can see that in spite of everything he went through, he was really loved, so you are probably right."

There are those who say that the hate in the world could make it impossible for white people to vote for a black man. This hate surely held no ground where we visited. We saw that regardless of the color of skin, people are people and kids are kids, and that all of us, despite difference, have similar dreams for ourselves and those we love. During the last eight years we have been divided by fear and ugliness, and this hold has too often seemed to obliterate these truths that unite us. During these last years we have sometimes forgotten that although trickle down economics is but a way to protect the wealthy, trickle down respect and love make life worth living.

We returned to the Fishtown Obama-Biden office with a list of those who needed help to get to the polls and several completed registration forms, but with no names of volunteers. Since both Stan and I are taking election day off, we signed up to return to Fishtown.

There was a place next to each name were we were to record any person who was angered by our visit and who should not be contacted again. We did have the name of one family who did not vote for religious reasons (whose kids were adorable and also could not wait for Halloween), but there was no hostility toward our candidates or our visit to record.

As a reward for our time we were given tickets to the Bruce Springsteen concert that would be followed by a speech by Senator Obama, to begin immediately upon our return to center city.

But we were not in the mood for a big party, even though it meant finally seeing Barack Obama in person. Instead we spent the last moments of Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Return, in reflection, together and privately, revisiting the earnest, caring Philadelphia individuals and families we had met, praying for the futures of these families and our own.