The push is on to have every American fill out the 2020 census—even if they have to do it in Hebrew or Yiddish.
To remove obstacles preventing anyone residing in the United States from not being counted, the Census Bureau provides forms in many dozens of languages on its website. A Hebrew language guide is even available at https://2020census.gov/he.html; Yiddish at https://2020census.gov/yi.html.
And at a time when some of the most vulnerable members of American society, including senior citizens and poor children, are especially at risk because of the coronavirus crisis, not filling out the 2020 census could deprive agencies and municipalities on the front lines of badly needed government funding for the next decade. The date for completing mail, phone and online responses has been extended from July 31 to Oct. 31 because of the virus.
The annual population count mandated by the Constitution has been taking place every 10 years since 1790. It not only determines aid to local police departments and first aid squads, but also to community and social service agencies.
The drive to get an accurate count is being championed by many sectors of the Jewish community, from local va’ads to individual rabbis.
In a statement emailed to the Jewish Link, New York Regional Census Office Director Jeff T. Behler said, “The 2020 census is safe, easy and important. Hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds are distributed annually based on those census counts. These funds pay for critical programs including Medicaid, Medicare, school lunch programs, business loans, violence prevention programs, fire departments and many more. Completing the questionnaire not only affects the family filling it out, but also the well-being of their community and state.”
In fact, Highland Park Complete Count Committee chair Udi Shorr said if even a quarter of the households in the 14,000-resident borough fail to return the form, it will cost the municipality about $3.5 million annually for the next decade in lost funding.
“Even within the Jewish community, a poor-quality census hurts low-income and elderly residents, war veterans and special needs children who depend on government programs,” he said.
The census results aid the police department and first aid squad, but also senior activities and trips, children’s programming like the Highland Park Street Fair, arts commission, farmer’s market, food bank and free and reduced cost student lunches.
Equally important, an undercount could cost residents a voice in government. Schorr pointed out that New Jersey lost a congressional district after each of the 1980, 1990 and 2010 census tabulations.
He said borough residents are being urged to each call five others in the community to encourage them to fill out the census.
Lakewood Deputy Mayor Menashe Miller, chair of his community’s Complete Count Committee, said while he did not have an exact number of how much federal money would be lost by an undercount, he estimated it would be millions each year in federal block grants to such organizations as the local bikur cholim, Hatzolah ambulance service and other entities that provide critical service to the community, such as the southern campus of Monmouth Medical Center and two federally qualified health centers in Lakewood that provide a variety of medical and dental services to underinsured residents.
“Lakewood is the fastest-growing municipality in the state and it is incumbent on us to get an accurate count,” said Miller, although the community faces a three-fold problem in reaching the observant Jewish community and its large Hispanic and undocumented communities.
In an outreach effort aimed at obtaining an accurate count, Lakewood Resource and Referral Center Executive Director Sarah Sternbach has amassed a coalition of organizations, including the Lakewood Va’ad Harabanim, to get the word out.
“We do a lot of outreach to schools and we have a dedicated line because some people have questions,” said Sternbach. “We are telling people if they give information to the government, it can’t hurt them. Everything is anonymous. We have billboards, have taken out newspaper and radio ads. We have sent pamphlets to every household in Lakewood.”
She said while residents appeared to be “engaged and interested,” not having access to the internet has presented problems for some.
Rabbi Yosef Carlebach, executive director of Rutgers Chabad and spiritual leader of Congregation Sons of Israel in Wayside, Monmouth County, said as part of the concerted outreach to fervently observant communities in New York City, public service announcements were being put out in in Yiddish.
“It is almost an obligation for the Jewish community, like voting,” said Carlebach of filling out the census. “We are living in a country, thank God, of kindness and goodness to the Jewish community and we as Jews, more than anyone else, have to make sure we are counted in this great country.”
He noted the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson told his followers voting should be considered a religious privilege, so much so that he put on Shabbat clothes and went to the mikvah on Election Day.
“We have to get out the message that the Jewish people are responsible members of society,” said Carlebach, noting he was urging members of his shul to fill out the census form.
“It is an essential part of our Judaism and our duty as Americans to be counted,” agreed Eliezer Zwickler, senior rabbi of Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange, adding he sent out reminders to his members to complete the form because he feared it may have slipped their minds during the pandemic.
“The census helps determine our representation and helps us not only be counted, but brings us closer to our American government and determines how our government money is spent,” said Zwickler. “I am sure there are people in our congregation, such as seniors, who would benefit.”
Rabbi Eliyahu Kaufman of Edison, the spiritual leader of Congregation Ohav Emeth in Highland Park, also cited the necessity for the Jewish community to do its civic duty.
“Rabbi Moshe Feinstein taught that the United States is a ‘medina of chesed’ (state of kindness) to the Jews and we must recognize that,” he explained. “Because of that, it is our obligation to participate in the 2020 census. Not only does it allow our community to get the proper amount of government aid and representation in Congress, but it also supports our democracy. I urge frum Jews to complete the 2020 census.”
By Debra Rubin