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Voting and the Jewish community: Can we finally take this seriously?

The Jewish community should use its electoral power beyond the presidential races -- where real change takes place

NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick created a national discussion on race relations by kneeling during the national anthem. Kaepernick deflated this discussion a few months later when he admitted that he didn’t vote and wasn’t planning to vote in the recent election. It was a startling admission that caused many in the media to question his commitment to his cause: How could someone who wants to change the status quo not vote?

In reality, Kaepernick isn’t much different from many of us. And that includes those in the Jewish communities who allege a deep concern over domestic and foreign policy issues but fail to vote.

The day after the election, I was in a meeting filled with Jewish leaders. I asked the group how many of them knew a family member or spouse who hadn’t voted in the 2016 election. To my astonishment, all hands went up. How could there be such apathy from a group known for being active in their community?

In the week following the election, I continued to speak with synagogue and Jewish day school leadership who admitted to not voting. When asked, most told me they either believed their vote didn’t matter or they didn’t care for either of the main presidential candidates. Still, others admitted to not understanding understand the issues well enough and skipped the entire process.

Kaepernick’s reason for not voting will ring true with a number of citizens. He argued that he didn’t care for then-candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Confusion, indifference, general distaste for politics, or the misguided notion that one person’s vote doesn’t matter may explain the startling number of people who didn’t vote in the presidential election — both in our own community and across the country.

According to the United States Election Project, nearly half the country — more than 100 million people — didn’t vote in the November 8 election. That’s 100 million plus people who decided, for whatever reason, that this election wasn’t worth their time.

Unfortunately, the Jewish community isn’t unique in this respect. The Orthodox Union Advocacy Center’s Teach NJS initiative launched a voter engagement effort in New Jersey in 2013. Although we successfully increased the number of people who vote in Bergen County, the results were less than stellar. In Teaneck, for example, the total number of people who voted increased from 50 percent in 2013 to 64% in 2016. In neighboring Englewood, the number grew from 34% in 2013 to 59% in 2016.

While Kaepernick’s excuse was understandable in an election year fraught with tension, it was still foolhardy. While presidential elections garner the most attention and coverage, all elections on the ballot are critically important — from Senate races to House races, to state legislative seats, all the way down to city council races. In Kaepernick’s case specifically, he failed to appreciate the impact state and local elections have on the issues he cares most about, namely, policing and race relations.

Similarly, many voters don’t realize how much local races affect the issues they care most about. While CNN and Fox News may not cover local legislative minutia, their impact far exceeds the media’s interest.

Care about Israel? Yes, the president is the most powerful voice on this issue, but many local and state political bodies voted on critical issues affecting the Jewish state, including the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel movement.

Care about Jewish education? Government funding for education is almost entirely decided at the local level.

What happens at the local level matters in the short term, but also in the long term. To continue the sports analogy, imagine local and state politics as the minor league. Many county chairs and state senators move up the ladder to national politics. Remember, President Obama was once a little-known state senator in Illinois. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was previously the mayor of Newark. The list goes on and on.

It’s time for the nation to take voting more seriously. This is especially true for the Jewish community, which is personally invested in major foreign policy issues like Israel and major domestic policies like education reform.

Thankfully, we have a year to change our lackluster voting habits. New Jersey and New York, states with sizeable Jewish populations, will hold two major elections in less than a year — governor of New Jersey and mayor of New York City. One out of 13 children in New York City is a yeshiva student. Imagine the possibilities if we vote for candidates who support school choice for non-public education.

Why stay home when every vote counts and makes a difference in our children’s lives as well as our own? Why be indifferent or lazy when there are critical races up and down the ballot? Devote just a little bit of time over the next year to educate yourself and your community about future elections. Your participation will make a big difference for our communities — and the nation.

Maury Litwack is director of state political affairs for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, the non-partisan public policy arm of the OU, and leads its advocacy efforts in Washington, D.C. and state capitals.

About the Author
Maury Litwack is the director of state political affairs for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center. As part of his work, Maury spearheaded Teach NYS, New York’s leading voice for New York’s Jewish day schools and yeshivas and has expanded the initiative to New Jersey, Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania and beyond.
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