In 1948, the year Harry Truman was elected, 21-year-old Bea Gross of North Newark voted for Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party’s candidate for president. “I was so excited to finally have my chance to exercise the right to vote,” she said.
Voting for the first time was a rite of passage, she said, and voting was considered to be a community event.
Bea Gross Podorefsky, who is now 96 and lives in Teaneck, has since voted in every state and federal election since then.
“There was no school on Election Day,” she recalled. “People dressed in their Sunday best to go to the polls, stopping to talk to their friends in the neighborhood along the way.” That has changed dramatically through the years, she said. “Now people rush in and rush out. There’s no feeling of community.”
Her father, Frank Irving Gross, owned a liquor store and delicatessen on Broad Street in Newark. “Across the street, Mrs. Rose Berlin owned a candy store that sold newspapers,” she said. “At the end of the day she’d bring them over, and my father would lay them all out to read, even on my mother’s freshly washed floor.”
Ms. Podorefsky’s parents devoured the articles in the New York Daily News, the New York Times, the Newark Star-Ledger, and the New York Journal-American. “Both my parents and our extended family sat together on Saturday evenings engaging in thoughtful discussions and lively debates about politics,” she said. “If my father were alive today, he’d be a CNN junkie.”
Ms. Podorefsky describes her younger self as a “big-mouth debater” in social studies class and on the debate team. “During the war and while in college I took part in political discussions with the Students for Democratic Action,” she said. “I joined the League of Women Voters in 1954.
“My parents were Democratic party-line voters,” she continued. “My brother and I felt a responsibility to vote and were anxious to take part in what we knew would likely feel like a grown-up experience.”
Ms. Podorefsky’s late husband, Arthur, was equally interested in politics. “I’d met my soulmate,” she said. “He and I never missed an opportunity to make our voices heard in all presidential elections.” Bea and Arthur Podorefsky raised three children who shared their passion for civic responsibility. “It was second nature for them to come in and turn on the news.
“Seventy-six percent of American citizens aged 65 and older voted in the November 2020 election, while the other 24% didn’t,” she said. “We’d like to see members of our National Council of Jewish Women section, and senior citizens in general, help increase that statistic to 100%.”
Admitting that she’s always preferred voting in person, so she can push the buttons and pull the levers, Ms. Podorefsky acknowledges the difficulties she has faced lately in getting to polling sites.
As a member of the Bergen County section of the National Council of Jewish Women, Bea Podorefsky launched her initiative, Platinum Power at the Polls, to encourage seniors to fulfill their civic duty by registering to vote and voting by mail.
“After spearheading the 2018 Get Out the Vote initiative, I was committed to getting new seniors registered to vote,” she said.
Ms. Podorefsky retired as a French teacher in Northern Valley High School in Demarest in 1991, but she’s still active in organizational work, her book club, and knitting. Although she is in good health, she recognizes that’s not the case for everyone her age. “Many seniors don’t drive anymore and lack transportation to and from the polls,” she said. “Others find it difficult to stand for long periods of time at the polling sites. Others can’t vote because they are confined to a nursing home.” With Platinum Power at the Polls, Ms. Podorefsky’s goal is to register seniors to vote before the 2024 election and to help educate them on the use of mail-in ballots.
“Voting is a powerful right I’ve been given as an American citizen,” she said. “Who I choose to govern may or may not determine the food I eat, the air I breathe, the medications I take, the water I drink, where I live and how I pay to live there.” Part of her mission is to remind people in their 80s, who have moved from their private homes to apartments or senior living communities, that they have to re-register to vote. “We’ve created talking points for NCJW spokeswomen to present at apartment complexes, condominiums, and assisted living communities in Teaneck, Fort Lee, Hackensack, Woodcliff Lake, and other towns in northern New Jersey,” she said. “Our goal is to visit 15 independent living communities in Bergen County, offering the necessary paperwork for seniors to register to vote, complete absentee ballots, and vote by mail.”
Hoping to reach as many seniors as possible, the information disseminated by speakers at these presentations is in English, Spanish, and Korean. “We have one contact person for each type of residence who reviews with senior men and women how they can vote without leaving their apartments,” Ms. Podorefsky explained. While some members of our NCJW section have moved from Bergen County to other states to be closer to their children, they all continue to receive our monthly mailings and are invited to participate in all planned activities.”
“My dream is for every American citizen to vote in the 2024 election,” she said. “Seniors need to know how important their vote is in safeguarding our individual rights and freedoms.”
Ms. Podorefsky is concerned that “voter turnout hasn’t risen above 60% in over 50 years,” citing a U.S. census survey that revealed that more than 100 million eligible Americans did not vote in 2016. “Whether we are 18 or 100, blond, brunette, black, gray, or platinum-haired, we are citizens in a democracy who have a civic duty and a fundamental right to vote in all elections.”
Bea and Arthur Podorefsky have eight grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. “My daughter Jan and my granddaughter Sarah are registering to be poll watchers for the next election,” she said proudly. Her fond memories of watching her parents walk with purpose to the polls have fueled her passion for creating “hassle-free” voting for seniors.
Ms. Podorefsky was one of six NCJW BCS members who recently received Women of the Century awards for their commitment to the Bergen County community and by embodying the organization’s core values as it celebrates its 100th year. And she remains an inspiration to voters young and old.
To learn more about the efforts of over 900 members of the Bergen County section of the National Council of Jewish Women, go to www.ncjwbcs.org.