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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

May 22, 2020

This past week, I gathered together with 1000 people - virtually, of course, on a zoom call just like this one. One thousand people. One thousand Reform Jews logged on a Tuesday night for the launch of the Religious Action Center’s Every Voice, Every Vote campaign. The Religious Action Center, as you may know, is the Reform Movement’s voice in Washington, D.C. This civic engagement campaign focuses on combatting voter suppression and mobilizing voters everywhere to make our voices heard.

I was so moved to be among those 1000 people who logged on. In a time of distancing, even being together with 1000 people through an online platform was powerful for me. I felt connected to people beyond my kitchen table. I was inspired that so many Reform Jews will be moved to take action on this crucial issue.

This week’s Torah portion is BaMidbar, the first portion in the book of Numbers. The English name of this fourth book of the Torah comes from the content of this first Torah portion - a census. 

A fitting biblical text for being together with 1000 people, as we took a role call of all the states represented in that giant meeting. A fitting biblical text, too, for ensuring that every vote is counted and every voice is heard.

I was joined on that call by several members of our Temple family who are eager to get involved in this initiative as well. I invited them to share with you a little bit about what inspired them to join the kick off town hall, and how you can get involved, too. Below, you can find Cooper Lerner’s reflections from this past Friday night. If you’d like to get involved in this campaign, please connect with me, our Temple office, and our social action chairs, Larry and Janie Pellish.

Reflections from Cooper: At its core, voting is our most fundamental right. It’s the right to have a voice in modern politics, and a voice to enact the change we desire to see in the world. Fortunately, this was instilled into me in a community where I had an easily accessible voting place, where it was encouraged to have my voice heard and shared. Yet, this is not the case for all. More recently, voter suppression has been at the forefront of politics, used as a partisan tactic to increase the likelihood of reelection for certain candidates. 

Last week I, along with a few other members of the Temple, attended a virtual meeting hosted by the Religious Action Center of reform Judaism. The meeting centered around voter suppression, and what our role as reform Jews should look like in combating it. At its core, the message is simple: in a functioning democracy, each voice should be heard, and each voice should have the same opportunity to be heard. In reality, the message is much more complicated. With certain states implementing new restrictions on voting, it is becoming easier and easier to silence voices that certain political parties see as being in opposition to their political agenda. States have enacted laws such as requiring photo IDs to cast ballots, or laws centered around a “use it or lose it” mentality, where if you don’t vote within a prescribed time, you’re withdrawn from the registration polls. Furthermore, some states are taking it as far as closing polling places on the day of elections, in an attempt to dissuade voters of certain groups from having their voice heard. As such, voters are finding it more and more difficult to partake in elections, even when they would otherwise like to.

The common denominator throughout all of this is that voter suppression is centered primarily around one thing: silencing the voices of historically marginalized groups. Voter suppression at its core is inequitable. Rarely does it target the white, middle aged, middle class voter. Instead it targets inner city voters, voters of color, voters of language minorities, voters that are disabled, and so on. Uncoincidentally, the most severe cases of voter suppression occur in the states with highly competitive political races that are often determined by these exact groups. In these states, even a few thousand voters can swing elections, and be the difference between a candidate winning or losing. 

So the question arose of what can we, as reform Jews, do about voter suppression? First and foremost, Jewish tradition teaches us that the selection of leaders is not seen as a privilege, but instead a collective responsibility. As such, it is not only the desire, but instead the responsibility of reform Jews to ensure that all eligible voters are counted. With this, there were a few ways put forward by the RAC that I found particularly good in light of our circumstances. 

First, and easiest, make a commitment that your community will be a 100% voting community. It’s important to note that by community I don’t mean the berkshires, or even pittsfield, but instead, your personal community. Your family, friends, and people that you are close with. Ensure they understand the importance of voting, and the importance of having a voice in our modern politosphere. I fully understand that some people can have lethargy towards politics, especially in times where seeing any direct change has become a slow and arduous process. But really instill in them the idea that without speaking out in attempts to have your opinion heard, it makes it that much easier for your opinion to disappear. Next, send your local and state elected officials letters, outlining the importance of voter protection, and voter rights. Third, the RAC is offering opportunities to reach out to low propensity voters, namely voters in targeted marginalized groups, in the form of a phone call, text, or postcard. These voters are often in states that are most severely affected by voter suppression, and as such need the most help.

I can fully understand, especially being in Western Massachusetts, that voter suppression isn’t something that we have to deal with on a day to day basis. We’re lucky that we live in a place that for the most part encourages people to vote, and have their voices heard. But through these ideas, we as reform Jews can make a difference not just locally but nationally. It is the time for us to take a stand as a group, and lend a helping hand to those that need it most. In the light of the upcoming election, I urge you to stay informed on voter suppression, and certain media outlet’s attempts to minimize it. I encourage you, if you’re able, to donate time or funds to groups centered around voter rights, such as the RAC or the ACLU. Most of all, I please implore you to vote. Have your voice heard, have it count. Do not let this right fade. Do not go gentle into that good night. 

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA

Wed, June 19 2024 13 Sivan 5784