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political activism

Last year's presidential election motivated Shoshana Hershkowitz to become more politically active and encourage others to do the same. Photo from Shoshana Hershkowitz

The 2016 presidential election campaign motivated a South Setauket mother of two young children to become more politically active and teach others how to do the same.

Shoshana Hershkowitz, a registered Democrat who considers herself a Progressive, has become a familiar face at local political rallies while balancing motherhood and teaching. In January she founded the Facebook group Suffolk Progressives — a page with nearly 1,000 followers — in order to engage others in political conversations and educate them on how to become more active in government. The page includes discussions and videos viewable to those interested in learning what they can do to become more civically engaged, even if they’re busy. 

Hershkowitz, a lecturer at Stony Brook University and conductor of the Stony Brook Chorale, said she credits her Israeli parents for her passion. She said her family was able to discuss politics, even with those who disagreed with them, without the discussions leading to arguments.

“I grew up at the dinner table talking about [politics] so that is something I always felt comfortable with and something we’re supposed to do,” she said.

Hershkowitz at a recent political rally. Photo from Shoshana Hershkowitz

Before her children were born, she volunteered for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, and knocked on doors, including in Pennsylvania, encouraging others to vote for him. After she gave birth to her oldest child, she said she didn’t have as much time to be as entrenched in politics as she would have liked. With the little time she had, she campaigned for local candidates and occasionally wrote a political blog, called Jew Kids on the Block.

“This election kind of re-galvanized me, I think which is true of so many people, and then it just kind of took off from there,” Hershkowitz said. “It started as a coping mechanism for me, and then it just sort of turned into what I thought would be an interesting opportunity to teach other people how to engage in political activism in a way that fits their lifestyle.”

She said when she was first trying to figure out how to make her voice heard, she started making calls to local members of congress including U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley). Zeldin has referred to the people who stake out his Patchogue office as “liberal obstructionists” in the past.

“I can make a difference at home in my pajamas,” she said.

Hershkowitz said she is also a big believer in writing letters to newspapers, something she had been doing before President Donald Trump (R) ran for office. She even helped to conduct a workshop about writing letters at U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi’s (D-Glen Cove) office.

“Now I realize that it’s a really important vehicle,” she said. “It changes the narrative in your community in a way that I think social media doesn’t. You can certainly talk to people you agree or disagree with on social media, but I still think that the newspaper has an outreach that social media does not at this point.”

More than a few of Hershkowitz’s letters have appeared in this newspaper.

She said she began taking her children to rallies during the last year, which has enabled her to become even more active on the local political scene. Her children have joined her at the January Women’s March on Washington in Port Jefferson Station, the March for Science at Stony Brook University and protests in front of Zeldin’s office.

Hershkowitz said she makes sure a rally will be a peaceful and safe one before bringing her children. She said she didn’t take them to a vigil in Port Jefferson the day after the Charlottesville protests, because she said she didn’t have the words to explain to them what happened in Virginia. She said she also limits their exposure to broadcast news.

“They see me call congress, they see me do all these things, and I will explain why I’m doing it, but I try to make sure their consumption of media is really limited in this time,” she said. “It’s hard to contextualize that for such young kids.”

The South Setauket resident balances political activism with motherhood and work as an instructor and chorale director. Photo from Shoshana Hershkowitz

Hershkowitz said the Suffolk Progressives Facebook page began as like-minded friends sharing thoughts on various topics. Among those friends is Stefanie Werner, who she met last year at a child’s birthday party.

“As someone who is also a strong supporter of progressivism and democratic values, it was amazing to form an instant kinship with a person who held the same beliefs and desires for change,” Werner said. “Shoshana is a powerhouse of energy and exuberance, resolving to revolutionize our political process and those who represent us.”

Cindy Morris, the Democratic candidate for Brookhaven Town Clerk, met Hershkowitz at a Democratic committee event for activists. Morris said Hershkowitz has made the grassroots efforts available to people with all levels of experience with her work that  goes beyond marches and rallies. One example is Hershkowitz posting a video on Facebook explaining how to call local legislators and strategies once they’re on the phone.

“She has made politics less intimidating and more inspiring, galvanizing and easier to participate in than ever before,” Morris said.

Hershkowitz also has met many local lawmakers in her travels, including Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant. The mayor described Hershkowitz as a spitfire “who is finding her voice during a time when others are afraid to speak up.” Garant said the activist is persistent, yet never demeaning, when she speaks with others, even if their opinions differ.

“She’s exemplary on how we all need to be with one another, “ Garant said.

Hershkowitz said her mission is to continue encouraging others to speak up.

“I hope that people realize that this isn’t someone else’s work, this is all of our work, and it can be just a couple of phone calls every day and making that a ritual like brushing your teeth is enough,” she said. “Don’t wait for someone else to do that work right now.”

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi speaks during a town hall Feb. 23. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding & Alex Petroski

President Donald Trump’s (R) first month in office and items on his agenda thus far have sparked an activist uprising in blue and red districts alike across the United States. Thursday, two North Shore congressmen made themselves available to concerned constituents, though the formats were different.

First congressional district U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and 3rd congressional district U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) each hosted town hall events Feb. 23 to discuss issues with the people they represent, a trend that has caught on for leaders in nearly all 50 states in the weeks since Inauguration Day. Suozzi hosted nearly 400 residents at Mid Island Y Jewish Community Center in Plainview for about two and a half hours. Zeldin spoke directly to voters in their homes in a telephone town hall.

Suozzi listens to a question during a town hall Feb. 23. Photo by Kevin Redding

According to Zeldin, more than 9,000 people sat in on the hour-long call, which featured questions and interactive polls. More than 1,000 others streamed it online. The congressman began the call with an opening statement lasting nearly five minutes, which touched on improving American safety at home and abroad; growing the local economy; supporting veterans and first responders; improving education; repairing infrastructure; repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act; and safeguarding the environment. He then answered 10 questions from a combination of callers and those streaming the conversation on the internet, submitting written questions.

Groups of constituents have lobbied the congressman to host an in-person town hall in recent weeks, but have been unsuccessful. Changes have also been made to his office hour availability, which he attributed earlier in February to the actions of “liberal obstructionists.” Zeldin justified the decision to hold a telephone town hall rather than a conventional one during the call.

“For years telephone town halls have allowed me to reach the maximum amount of constituents interested in constructive dialogue,” he said. “This is a modern way to bring a town hall directly to your home.”

He evaluated the effectiveness of the format in an email through spokeswoman Jennifer DiSiena the following day.

“These outreach efforts with the public have proven to be extremely effective and allow him to productively reach the maximum amount of constituents who are interested in constructive dialogue,” she said. “It is true that liberal obstructionists cannot disrupt the call.”

A Facebook group called “Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin,” set up by constituents attempting to speak to the congressman face-to-face, which has more than 2,000 members, followed along with the call and held a discussion regarding Zeldin’s responses on the page. Several posters said they registered to be called on Zeldin’s website, but never received it, or received it after its commencement at 7 p.m.

A screen shot of the website used to stream Zeldin’s telephone town hall Feb. 23. Image from Zeldin’s website

A post asking if any questions were not addressed during the call received more than 100 responses. One constituent asked if the congressman would put pressure on the House Oversight Committee to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia. Another asked about the shrinking middle class and growing income inequality. Someone else asked, “What will Zeldin do to assure females have safe affordable birth control/reproductive rights?”

Zeldin was asked on the call, among several other questions, about his stance on the Trump administration’s reversal of transgender bathroom guidelines set by the Obama administration — he said he supported the reversal. Another question involved Trump’s slow response to anti-Semitic violence and demonstrations across the U.S. since election day — which Zeldin condemned, though added he appreciated Trump speaking up this week. Several questions came in concerning the ACA and what will take its place once repealed — the congressman said he supported the proposed Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, coverage for those with preexisting conditions, allowing kids to stay on parents’ plans until age 26, and would support a voucher program for veterans.

DiSiena addressed Zeldin’s plans going forward regarding a traditional town hall.

“Way too many of the people at the moment requesting town halls across the country are doing so with the purpose of disrupting the town hall without any interest at all in decorum,” she said.

Former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Arizona), who was shot during an outdoor, public meeting with constituents in 2011, called on members of Congress to “face their constituents” and hold town halls in a tweet Feb. 23.

DiSiena said Zeldin is open to small meetings, though no in-person town hall is currently planned. DiSiena disclosed results of one of the five poll questions Zeldin posed to listeners during the call, showing most constituents, 23 percent, are concerned about health care above all other issues.

Conversely, Suozzi stood and engaged a large crowd of residents and activists, answering more than 30 questions on a variety of hot topics, including the repeal of the ACA, the relationship between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Trump’s travel restriction executive order. He also voiced his disapproval of what’s happening in the White House, and called on those in attendance to “not hate Trump supporters” and instead turn their anger into something productive.

Seven-year-old Zachary Aquino asks Suozzi a question during a town hall Feb. 23. Photo by Kevin Redding

“I think this is as American as you can get … this is so inspiring and this country needs this type of engagement,” Suozzi told the crowd, saying in all his years of holding town hall meetings — both as a congressional candidate and mayor of Glen Cove — he’s never seen an attendance like what he had.

“We need to take all this energy and excitement that we’ve got and use it in a constructive fashion … to work together to win the battles,” he said. “Write letters to the editor, attend issues meetings, run for office, support people for local office. What we really need are reasonable Americans that will put their country before their party to help us to get Congressional support on [issues]. Don’t underestimate what’s working.”

A civil discourse on ideas and plenty of smiles and laughs, Suozzi’s session had a different tone than the heated ones across the country, in which angry constituents waged vocal war against Republican representatives.

Suozzi began the gathering by telling attendees — some of whom represented local activist groups like North Shore Indivisible, MoveOn.org, and Science Advocacy of Long Island — to be respectful and direct all comments to him.

Attendees raised questions about Trump’s ties to Russia, the release of the commander-in-chief’s taxes, gun violence, immigration, climate change and the state of health care.

One attendee, Jessica Meyer, who has cerebral palsy, asked the congressman if he would help those like her who fear people with disabilities might lose benefits with the potential repeal of the ACA.

“People with disabilities are getting lost in this conversation,” she said.

Suozzi responded to her concerns.

“I want you to know that I will fight tooth and nail to protect you, personally, and everybody in your situation, and I want to hear from everybody in this room who’s going to fight to protect Jessica,” Suozzi said.

Harry Arlin, a World War II and Korean War veteran from Huntington, said he lived briefly under Adolf Hitler in Germany and Joseph Stalin in Russia, though fled both countries.

“I’m too old to run again,” he said.

Seven-year-old Zachary Aquino echoed Arlin’s sentiments.

“I don’t think this is right having Trump as president, I think it’s really bad,” he said. “I don’t know how this happened — how we got stuck in this mess — but it’s good that we’re here today … this is a really valuable time. Fighting against Trump is very good. We’ve got to do this.”

A screen shot of the Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin Facebook page. Image from Facebook

When asked what he was going to do to restore one attendee’s faith in “American exceptionalism,” Suozzi pointed around the room.

“This is it — this is people who believe and should not walk out of here with anything but a stronger belief that by being involved, you can actually have an impact on things,” he said.

The White House has made claims recently to suggest some activists attending town halls are being paid to be there and rile up crowds, a sentiment which Zeldin echoed in a Feb. 18 Facebook post.

“Liberal obstructionists are disrupting, resisting and destructing public events all around America,” he wrote. “Our neighbors want to actually engage in substantive, productive, constructive dialogue, and the liberal obstructionists are spitting on them with their shameful shows for their own political theater.”