Among my many lasting childhood memories from Lynbrook, Long Island, is the perennial pilgrimage I would make with my parents to the gymnasium of William F. Buck Elementary School in order to accompany them to vote.
In those days, you surely remember, there was an actual voting booth with a curtain, pegs to move and a big lever. Year after year, I looked forward to accompanying my parents probably because I really liked pulling the lever to register the vote, which simultaneously opened the curtain at the end of the session.
I also remember my first time voting in 1995, although it was not as exciting as the subsequent year’s presidential election, in which Clinton, Dole and Perot were running. My parents instilled in me a love of country and sense of responsibility that I am trying to instill in my children today although the voting booth looks quite different.
These memories have bubbled up for me because of the upcoming presidential election (I am a political junky), and because of the new Voter ID law in Pennsylvania. I am writing to you from a nonpartisan perspective and without comment about the need or motivation for the law. My intent is to share Jewish perspectives on why we should vote in the upcoming election and all subsequent elections.
The Torah teaches us, “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” (Deuteronomy 30). There is an eternal Jewish value — a mitzva — that informs us to be active in shaping our future for the good, for a better life — u’vacharta b’chayim, choose life.
When faced with options that offer us two or more different paths on which to proceed, we are instructed to choose, to make a selection, to vote.
Early in my voting career, I was exposed to the strategy of finding another person who plans to vote for “the other” candidate and going to lunch instead of voting. The concept is clear. If our votes will cancel each other out anyway, why not just go to lunch and spend our time more productively than wasting our time in line in an endeavor that is fruitless.
I have always rejected this strategy; I believe it is detrimental to the role we must play as American Jews. We know the story well. For centuries, our people were relegated to the fringes of society, not having a voice in selecting the path forward for society at large.
Now, as a proud American Jew, I refuse to sit out because of apathy about the enormity of the political system or frustration resulting from my choice not being the majority choice. U’vacharta — each and every one of us has a sacred obligation to choose, to vote.
The Torah teaches us, “Adonai spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting in the Desert of Sinai on the first day of the second month of the second year after the Israelites came out of Egypt. He said: ‘Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families, listing every man by name, one by one.’ ” (Numbers 1) Leaving aside the gender bias of generations past, I read this mandate to take a census as a mandate to have every person count.
“Take a census” s’u et rosh, is better translated as “lift up the head of every person in the community.” The mandate to count is not to count from a mountaintop, as modern public officials would determine the size of a large crowd by estimating from a helicopter as they do for rallies or open-air concerts. The Torah mandate to count requires that each person presents him/herself as a unique individual and is looked in the eye by the counting official. It is a very personal experience the foundation of which is “every individual soul counts in a unique way.”
Nowadays, my teenage children take pleasure in signing the electronic receipt at the checkout counter when I pay with a credit card. Knowing that I authorize their signature, I am happy to give them this sense of counting even though I am paying the bill. However, when we travel to the polling place, even though they join me in the electronic booth and help indicate my selections, I sign the registry because I want to be counted on the day when I vote. Without speaking to the motivation or the need for the Pennsylvania Voter ID law, I believe that it reinforces this concept: Take pride in your vote, raise your head high as you cast your ballot and are counted… because you do.
So here we have two mandates from Jewish wisdom: vote and be counted as an individual. I am well aware that the percentage of American Jews who vote is very high. Given the new Pennsylvania Voter ID law, however, I am concerned about those within our Jewish community who live on the fringes; they might not have access to the appropriate photo identification or the foundational paperwork that is needed.
As a participant in and convener of the Pittsburgh Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, I, and others, are concerned about our seniors, our teens and our emerging adults. Will they have the appropriate identification to vote? I was pleased to learn from the administration of the Jewish Association on Aging, that they are already thinking about how to ensure that every resident who can will be registered to vote. They will also work to spread accurate information to all those seniors whose lives they touch.
Members of the roundtable are also concerned about the other members of our larger community who might not have the appropriate identification and who might be limited in their own ability to acquire it. That is why we will work with other like-minded organizations to ensure that everyone from the Hill District to Squirrel Hill, from Braddock to Brighton Heights will have the appropriate identification.
Each of us has a responsibility to ensure that those we know who might not have the appropriate identification to vote will get that identification. If you are in the sandwich generation, reach out to your elderly relatives and to your emerging adults to make sure that they understand the law and meet the requirements. Even as I write these words, the requirements are often changing. Instead of listing them for you at the risk of them being outdated, please visit votespa.com for up to date information. This website is the Pennsylvania Department of State’s online voting information and resource center.
Rabbi Levi Kellman of Congregation Kol haNeshamah in Jerusalem once explained to me that every time he votes in Israeli elections, he recites the shehechiyanu prayer in gratitude for the responsibility to cast his ballot. We should do the same here in the United States.
My friends, no matter your political inclination, no matter how you might vote, please take the eternally contemporary mandate seriously: vote and enable others to follow your example.
(Rabbi Ronald B.B. Symons is director of lifelong learning at Temple Sinai and a convener of the new Pittsburgh Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.)