Amendment Allowing Felons to Vote Gives Florida's Jews Cause for Celebration in Midterms

Several rabbis cited the Jewish themes of repentance and second chances as reasons to champion the amendment, which will restore voting rights to nearly 1.5 million people

People gathering around the Ben & Jerry's "Yes on 4" truck as they learn about Amendment 4 and eat free ice cream at Charles Hadley Park in Miami, October 22, 2018.
Wilfredo Lee,AP

FLORIDA – Although Tuesday ended in disappointment for Jewish Floridians who had campaigned for gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and Sen. Bill Nelson, they did have some good news: The passage of an amendment, heavily backed by Jewish groups, to restore voting rights to nearly 1.5 million felons.

The genesis of this success story began over 18 months ago when a congregant brought an idea to Rabbi Greg Weisman at Boca Raton’s Temple Beth El. There were petitions circulating, organized by a group called Second Chances Florida, to get the felon amendment on the ballot for the midterm elections. The movement was not yet widely known outside of progressive circles, but this congregant had an idea: Isn’t this something the Jewish community should get behind?

Weisman, a rabbi who is currently a Brickner Fellow – a Reform movement fellowship designed to help rabbis and cantors become effective social justice leaders – realized that Jewish values did not mesh with the idea of permanently revoking the voting rights of felons. (The amendment excludes felons convicted of murder and sex crimes.)

The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center connected Weisman with other rabbis and cantors across Florida. Other groups who partnered in the effort included the Nation Council of Jewish Women, the Anti-Defamation League and JOIN for Justice (Jewish Organizing Institute & Network).

“We asked ourselves as a team, what are the talking points within the Jewish community that show it is reflective of Jewish values?” he recalled.

Once it was on the ballot as Amendment 4, rabbis like Weisman had to start convincing people in their congregations and beyond that this was an amendment worth supporting.

During the High Holy Days, Weisman turned to the classic Jewish theme of teshuvah – repentance and return – to argue for bringing people who had served their time back into the fold.

“I gave my sermon on the morning of Rosh Hashanah and talked in part about getting involved in the election and to vote for Amendment 4 because our experience as Jews in other countries has often been to be denied a voice,” Weisman told Haaretz. “We do have a voice here, and I think we need to use that voice to right that wrong and stop people from being permanently disenfranchised.”

Weisman and his colleagues also made videos and wrote op-eds. In one op-ed published two weeks before the election, he reached out to the wider Jewish community and made talmudic arguments that Florida’s policy – one of the most restrictive in the nation – ran contrary to Jewish values.

“We can reflect on the teaching in the Talmud that those who have performed teshuvah, who have repented and made amends for their past misdeeds, should not be reminded of those misdeeds (Baba Metzia 58b),” he wrote in the Jewish Journal, a paper published by South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “By continuing to disenfranchise former felons, we create a constant reminder of their past, and put them in a second class of citizenry.”

Weisman also noted that in the tractate Brachot, it says that “no leader should be chosen without the consultation of the community.”

Amendment 4 secured 64 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s ballot, passing the 60 percent threshold needed for passage.

“We’re elated,” Rabbi Gayle Pomerantz, senior rabbi at Miami’s Temple Beth Sholom told Haaretz. She and Weisman worked closely together, along with rabbis in other major Jewish communities in Florida, to promote the amendment.

“This was something we embraced 19 months ago as something where we could really make an impact on our state,” Pomerantz said. “We saw this as a matter of racial justice as well, because African-Americans are disproportionately affected.

“So often,” she continued, “we get involved in issues of social justice and can’t see the impact of the work we do. But this was an issue where we worked really hard, and once people saw the injustice of our constitution – and that this was a leftover of the Jim Crow era – we were able to move it forward.

“Particularly as Jews, we feel very much that people deserve second chances,” Pomerantz said. “Justice should be restorative and not punitive. If we want people to be integrated after they serve their time, we can’t put them in a perpetual cycle of being marginalized from society.”

A number of major Jewish philanthropists contributed to the campaign, including George Soros, Seth Klarman and Stacy Schusterman.

JTA contributed to this report.