November 4, 2016

The Jewish Importance of Voting

Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky, Congregation Beth El of South Orange

I remember the first United States presidential election I really followed.
Thanks to Mrs. Velasco’s U.S. History class at Schechter, now GOA, we read the newspapers every morning and watched the news every evening so that we could report back on the issues. She inspired our class to focus on the election even though many of us weren’t old enough to cast a vote. She explained that the issues mattered to us; they would impact us because we were the future.
I’ve come to realize that elections matter not only as an American, but matter as a Jew as well. Our tradition teaches that we must be involved in the community. Pirkei Avot 2:5 teaches Al Tifrosh min HaTzibur – don’t distance yourself from community. Voting is a sign and commitment that one is involved in community; being involved in the political process – and caring about the election, even if you aren’t old enough to vote – is the way we ensure that we don’t distance ourselves from the community.
In fact, many in the Jewish community were allies in the fight for voting rights during the civil rights movement. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – along with hundreds of clergy of diverse faiths –  famously marched arm-in-arm with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, because our faith obligates us to vote and also to ensure that everyone has that right.
The Jewish belief in the right to vote was not just a belief that clergy fought for. Two Jews, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were murdered along with James Chaney on June 21, 1964 in Mississippi during the “Freedom Summer,” when they traveled south to register voters. The right to vote should not be taken lightly; many have literally given their lives for this right.
In the United States, it is illegal for a religious institution to publicly endorse a candidate; the institution’s non-profit status can be jeopardized if one does so. That is why you won’t see a synagogue or a Jewish day school promoting whom to vote for; that is why you won’t see me standing on the bima in my congregation telling people whom to vote for. Too many people, however, assume that means that as religious institutions, we should avoid talking about the election altogether. I think that is a mistake.
If I learned anything from Mrs. Velasco’s history class while a student at GOA and if we learned anything from the likes of Rabbi Heschel marching and of Goodman and Schwerner being murdered, it is that as Jews, all elections are important.
Moreover, we must use Jewish values to guide our decision in whom to support. We are taught: “Do not hate another in your heart” (Lev. 19:17) and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Furthermore, the obligation to “welcome the stranger” appears in the Torah more times than any other mitzvah. These are the values that guide me – supporting love and standing up to hate. The Talmud teaches that “silence is tantamount to consent” (Bava Metzia 37b). As a rabbi, as a Jew, and as a human being, these are the values that guide me.
Find whatever values guide you and let those determine who you think is best fit to serve as president, as senator, and as congressional representative. Most importantly, though, don’t separate yourself from the community. Be involved in the process. That is what our faith teaches us.

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth El in South Orange. An alumnus of SSDS/GOA (Class of '02), he was student council secretary and the Roadrunner mascot while at Schechter. He previously served as rabbi at the Jacksonville Jewish Center in Jacksonville, Florida and currently sits on the Social Justice Commission of the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly.

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