Conversation for a Change: Power of the Great Schlep

by Amy Beth Schneider

In his campaign for the American presidency, Barack Obama inspired his supporters to become vocal as leaders and organizers. The organized support for Obama within the Jewish community sparked an intergenerational dialogue that revealed the broader possibility for achieving political change through conversation. These conversations also reset the timbre of political dialogue, rediscovering a spirit of debate that is integral to Judaism.

The Great Schlep, a movement organized in the fall of 2008 by Ari Wallach and Mik Moore and publicized with an online video featuring comedian Sarah Silverman, encouraged Jews to convince their elderly relatives in Florida to support Obama. This effort inspired an intergenerational political dialogue within Jewish families, and the Great Schlep website welcomes “24,000 schleppers and counting.” Obama ultimately captured 78 percent of the American Jewish vote. Obama’s promises of change – in education, health care, environmental, and foreign policies – inspired his supporters. After being captivated by Obama’s 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, Daniel Hurwitz, a 36-year-old lawyer from Los Angeles, volunteered extensively to support the candidate.

“He was clear, charismatic, articulate,” Hurwitz said. “I have never heard someone be so specific. To me he really did represent the next generation of leadership, or what could be.”

Yet the decision to support Obama was not an easy one for all. The Great Schlep targeted a community that was overwhelming Democratic but that had reservations about Obama. Many of these Floridians were faced with doing something they had never done before: voting for an African-American, voting for a Republican, or not voting. Marvin Manning, 84, is the chairman of the Democratic Club in Century Village Boca Raton. Of 3,500 residents in the retirement community, 3,000 are registered Democrats. Yet Manning perceived sensitivity around Obama’s candidacy based on his youth, his lack of experience, and his race.

“Whether or not people like to admit it, it was an undertone thought,” Manning said. “The young people muted the issue. We carried Obama 70 percent – without the Schleppers, it may have been 52 to 48.”

The result proves the effectiveness of intergenerational dialogue in accomplishing desired political outcomes. It also demonstrates how young, unaffiliated Jews can engage in the Jewish community through dialogue. The movement asked Jews to have forthright conversations that were personal and potentially disquieting, and that vocalized their concerns about American leadership. Allowing themselves to become vulnerable by expressing their beliefs required an honesty, as opposed to organizing large crowds, persuading anonymous people, or canvassing.

“What was most interesting and compelling about the movement was its insistence on examining in a forthright way topics that are off the table – race, and race within the Jewish community,” Moore said. A significant number of young Jews cared deeply enough about Obama to take up this challenge. “It meant having a very difficult conversation with parents or grandparents about things you would never discuss,” he said. “That’s the most important thing we did.”

Moore said racial prejudice is often written off as a flaw of the older generation, and that there had been a silent agreement to maintain the status quo. In broaching this issue through conversation, the spirit of political action emerged in a contemporary context.

Political discourse in the Jewish community had ceased to grapple with differences in perspective, according to Wallach. In that sense, the Great Schlep served to “remind us where we came from,” Wallach said. When Wallach received a forwarded e-mail with false claims about Obama’s biography and interests – and saw as many as 250 recipients on the mailing list – he impulsively replied to everyone, rebutting false claims.

“The process that is Judaism is wrestling. At the center of what Judaism is, is that dialectic, is that wrestling,” Wallach said.

The Great Schlep drew more than 20,000 young Jews who were inspired to take action towards a common goal. But can the movement continue to effect change? Encouraging dialogue between young Jews and their elders could open the door to a more frequent exchange. In turn, this exchange could lead to greater influence on the political and social landscape.

Moore offers the recent health care reform battle as an example in which intergenerational dialogue helped effect change. “It’s seniors in general who were uncomfortable with proposed change and young people who have the most to gain from it,” he said. “It’s another occasion where you needed older and younger people to be having some difficult conversations with each other, to hear it and have it be personalized.”

Obama’s leadership in turn sparked a new generation of leaders who, as Manning would say, “got political.” In this context, this meant representing one’s beliefs openly and in a potentially hard conversation with a family member. Heroes, compared with superheroes, do not simply appear, gifted with preternatural ability and omniscient awareness. Heroes emerge from within our communities and relationships, perceiving possibility, and checking our movement forward while remaining connected to what is behind.

Amy Beth Schneider is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn and a M.F.A. candidate at Sarah Lawrence College, concentrating in nonfiction writing. She is also a modern dancer, choreographer, and yoga teacher, and enjoys teaching creative movement classes in the New York City public schools.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Jewish Heroes issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.