By Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Rabbi Joy Levitt, and Dr. Judith Rosenbaum
On November 8, instead of coming to work, many of the staff of our organizations will spend the day knocking on doors, reminding people to vote, and monitoring polling stations. That’s because all of us have given our employees that day (and for two of our organizations, days before as well) as community service days, to participate in Get Out the Vote and voter protection work.
In doing so, we are living out our mission, as organizations rooted both in Jewish and in American values.
Both Jewish and American law strive to ensure responsible communal leaders. The rabbis of the Talmud describe at length the qualities of wisdom, honesty, and concern for the greater good that should define those charged with communal leadership. Similarly, the Founders tried to devise an electoral system that would best serve the needs of our country. Neither our leaders nor our system of government will ever be perfect, of course. But that is where we come in. As citizens and as members of communities striving to create the conditions for meaningful and ethical Jewish lives, we must engage in the political processes that will help our government live up to its highest ideals.
As women and descendants of immigrants, we do not take the right to vote for granted. Grateful for our own enfranchisement, we draw inspiration from those Jews who fought to obtain these rights. Jewish immigrant activists such as Rose Schneiderman and Clara Lemlich worked for suffrage because they understood that the power of the ballot box was essential to improving the conditions of working women. Upper class Jews such as Maud Nathan also argued that universal voting rights should be of special concern to Jews, who had a long history of disenfranchisement.
In a 1984 letter, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the most respected Orthodox authorities of the twentieth century, implored his followers to vote, saying:
“A fundamental principle in Judaism is hakaras hatov – recognizing benefits afforded us and giving expression to our appreciation. Therefore, it is incumbent upon each Jewish citizen to participate in the democratic system which guards the freedoms we enjoy. The most fundamental responsibility incumbent on each individual is to register and to vote.”
Participation in democracy means not only exercising our own right to vote but also ensuring that every citizen is able to exercise this right. Today, in the midst of a flurry of attacks on the right to vote, it is more important than ever to protect the right of every eligible voter to have his or her voice heard.
Previous generations of Jewish activists had much to lose in speaking out and standing up for voting rights. Our engagement in this election process, by contrast, is relatively risk-free, requiring only an investment of time and energy.
What we stand to gain – as a Jewish community and as a broader American society – is significant. By encouraging and protecting voting, we help to ensure a democracy that best reflects the perspectives and needs of all its citizens. We are grateful for this opportunity to remind our staff, ourselves, and our larger communities of our responsibility and of our Jewish and American values through the concrete step of offering time to vote and to help others to do the same.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Rabbi Joy Levitt is the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan. Dr. Judith Rosenbaum is the Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive.