Election Reflection for Teens – and for all of us

Screen capture: https://www.mobilize.us

By Rabbi Tamara Cohen

This presidential election is more fraught than any before in my life, with definitive results, as we all know, unlikely on November 3. I am carrying with me into this day, memories of my father, z”l, who carried all our family televisions into the living room on election night in 1980 so we could track the three networks of those days. I still carry with me the heaviness of November 1, 1988, when the Labor Party lost the Prime Ministership in Israel. That day, I learned from my father’s frantic rushing from poll place to poll place between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, that one day could change the course of a country in ways that were almost too big for my teen mind to comprehend. Now, as a mother, rabbi and educator, I am attending online webinars, texting and phone banking and still finding myself afraid and confused.

I know that the night of the election, like so many teens and adults across the country, I will most likely have to sit and wait, with hope and trepidation. There could be mass protests, and even violence; there could also be calm and just a lot of talk, tweets, and anxiety. With this in mind, we at Moving Traditions have been hard at work developing materials to support teens and the adults in their lives. The activities and discussion guides will help teens identify and manage feelings raised by the election, including on election night itself; reflect on how gender is at play; identify middot (character traits and values) to guide their understanding of events; and deepen connection to themselves and others through meaningful engagement.

Here is some of what we suggest:

  1. Take your temperature first! Many of us have been taking our kids’ temperatures daily to ensure their physical health. As we head into the election, we need to be sure we are also taking our own emotional temperature and doing what we can to keep it down. Checking in with ourselves will help us to understand how we are feeling so that we can effectively manage our emotions and behave in ways that ensure our ability to continue to care well for the teens of our lives. Our teens need us to be present and empathetic as they – and we – struggle with the uncertainty and fear of this unprecedented election period.
  1. Create a plan for Election Night. Schedule time to turn off the TV or walk away periodically during election night. Go outside if you can and look up at the sky and count the stars. Have a quick liberty scavenger hunt – invite everyone in your family to find one object that represents freedom or liberty to them and bring them to a central place and listen to each person’s explanation. Take one or more poetry or dance breaks during the long night. Poems to share include: One Vote by Aimee Nezkhumatahil, “V’ahavta” by Aurora Levins Morales, The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, The Low Road by Marge Piercy, or Langston Hughes’s Let America Be America Again, or another favorite. Or take a few minutes to dance to an Election 2020 Playlist or together make your own. Or Create a family voting timeline(on paper or add to this online timeline, created as part of Kol Koleinu Fellow Danielle Gruber’s project, “Voting with a Feminist Lens” workshop series). Record the first-time various members of your family voted or will be able to vote. Include other key historical events that have had an impact on your family’s ability to vote – the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the 15th Amendment, the 19th Amendment, immigration to democratic countries from non-democratic countries. You may want to call relatives and ask them to answer these questions.
  1. Create expectations that normalize uncertainty. Make sure to name that we will not have a typical Election “Night” this year. Due to the regulations in many states about counting ballots, it is highly unlikely that a winner will be declared on November 3. Talk with teens about what past election nights have been like for you and help them recognize that they will have many more presidential elections in their lifetimes – and will always remember this one. Imagine what might happen when we know who has won. Fill in the blanks on this form and discuss. Teens may want to print out a copy and keep it somewhere in their rooms where they can look at it before getting on to social media or talking with family or friends.

Think about how to make the memory one that is not just about fear and uncertainty but also about family or community togetherness and hope. Think of yourself as co-creating a family story of triumph over hardship, which will be retold for years to come. We know that youth who hold these kinds of stories are more likely to demonstrate various indicators of well-being.

Together, review key dates ahead in the democratic process for determining the next president. Discuss how your family will need to return to the routines of life beginning the day after Election Day, even as you may also face choices and risks ahead given the expected contestation of results in many counties and the possibility of violence. You may choose to begin or continue talking with teens about protest, extremist violence, and risk-taking. Take some time to review or reflect on your family values, agreements and boundaries around safety and various forms of civic engagement.

In your conversation, reflect on your racial identity and the racial identities of friends and community members, and other factors that impact decision-making about public protest. Be open about how you navigate your relative privilege or lack of privilege as a Jew with white privilege or a Jew of Color in spaces of public protest where People of Color are generally at greater risk. Create an open space for discussion and emphasize your values and the range of different ways of engaging in our democracy and in ensuring fair and free elections.

  1. Explore Middot (character traits) for this Moment:

Take a few minutes for various members of your family to discuss which middot, an ancient Jewish approach to character traits, feel most important in getting through this election and which are most important to you in a leader. A fun way to do this online and compare your answers to the answers of teens and families around the country can be found on the Poll everywhere linked here. One thing to think and talk about is how gender and racial socialization and restrictive norms effects what we value in a leader and what various leaders value and display as character traits and how teens can be and are part of making change in this arena.

  1. Dont try to get through this time alone. The Jewish community is organizing so many great ways of countering isolation during this time. Join others in your city or region. Or share with your teen about these events Moving Traditions is co-sponsoring with Truah and with Keshet: Truah’s Tikkun Leyl Election, an evening of learning and spirit, on Nov. 3 from * pm ET to 11 pm ET, feature teaching, yoga, and at 10:25 pm ET, Moving Tradition’s Kol Koleinu Feminist Fellow Daisy Friedman, a high schooler, transplant patient, and activist who will share an original, hot off the presses, one-woman piece about being a young person in Nebraska whose rights and health are on the line. Keshet’s post-election events for LGBTQ and Ally Teens and for Jewish Youth of Color,

As I talk with my 14 and 5 year old about the election and the coming period of time, I will be holding in my heart the legacy of my father, born 20 days after the German surrender in 1945 and so passionately committed to democracy – in the U.S, Israel, and the whole world. I will be holding a lot of fear and vulnerability, as a lesbian anti-racist mom and as a resident of Philadelphia – a city still reeling from the killing of Walter Wallace and accused by the President as a place “where bad things happen.” I will also be drawing hope from the resilience of my children and feeling gratitude for the responsibility of helping them make meaning of this time and building their own commitment to democracy.

Rabbi Tamara Cohen is Chief and VP of Program Strategy for Moving Traditions, which emboldens teens by fostering self-discovery, challenging sexism, and inspiring a commitment to Jewish life and learning. She also serves on the national board of Women’s March, Inc.