Jan Uhrbach

An Open Letter to Florida Jews

Dear fellow Jews,

I write as a rabbi, an American, and in memory of my parents, z”l, proud Floridians who did not live to vote in this election.

Almost everyone longs to make a difference, to leave the world a better place. Most of us do it in small ways:  raising a family, helping friends and neighbors. Some get to do something on a grander scale, shaping the future for all our children.

Each of you in Florida has that opportunity right now; you’re in a swing state, and may well choose the next leader of the free world.  Our history as Jews has taught us that we can never be complacent anywhere – from medieval Spain to modern Germany, we’ve seen societies turn.  We know with horrifying certainty that “it couldn’t happen here” is never true. Not even in America.

Many of us are rightly scared and angry. The world is a frightening place. How should we channel our fear into action? 

My mother taught me to examine the roots of my fears, so I could act calmly and rationally even when afraid. Jewish tradition demands the same. The Torah tells of the Israelite scouts who scared the people out of pursuing their vision; our Kol Nidre prayers refer back to that story, when we sought forgiveness for the sin of acting from fear. Jews are supposed to be learned, discerning, able to bracket our emotions and act on values.

So I’m asking you to do a few things before this election:

1) Spend some quiet time reflecting on what you’re afraid of, what’s really likely, and what’s not. 

For me, the greatest threat right now is that America will cease to be a democracy – that we’ll lose the tolerance and diversity that defines us. 

The Holocaust has taught me to believe what candidates say they’ll do.  Donald Trump says he will require registration, and bar immigration, based on religion. He says he will limit First Amendment press freedoms. He says women will be punished for abortions. He’s threatened to “jail” a political opponent. He says he will default on U.S. obligations abroad, will not support our NATO allies, and will be “sort of a neutral guy” on Israel.  He conflates autocratic rule with “strength.” He incites violence. He won’t denounce hate speech, including anti-Semitism.  All of that terrifies me.  

You won’t hear such dangerous threats and disregard for our Constitution from Hillary Clinton. Even if you don’t trust  her, what do you fear she will actually do?  Do you think there’s a serious risk she will unravel American democracy and create an authoritarian state?

2) Spend some thoughtful time analyzing rationally who is likely to be effective.

When Hillary Clinton is in public office, she gets overwhelmingly high approval ratings – from Democrats and Republicans, even Trump himself – because she works hard; she’s good at the job, and she’s done a lot of good for a lot of people. 

Perhaps Hillary is not as good at campaigning.  Trump is an entertainer; he can rally up a crowd.  But his professional life is littered with lawsuits, bankruptcies, and unpaid bills.  Not a single colleague or business associate spoke on his behalf at the convention.  Since he won’t reveal his tax returns, we don’t even know if he’s a good businessman; we do know that he feels no obligation to pay his fair share. There’s no evidence he’s ever done anything good for anyone except himself.

Which is more important to you in a president – campaigning or governing?  

3) Do some research outside of social media, and read beneath the headlines. 

As a First Amendment lawyer I have great respect for the press.  And I’ve seen first-hand how disciplined, research-based, factual reporting has been over-shadowed and undermined by fear-mongering rumor mills, baseless opinion masquerading as fact, and conspiracy theories promulgated on social media.  Please step out of that realm and look closely for evidence. 

4) List the qualities you think make for real leadership. 

Jewish sources suggest:  humility, respect for everyone’s dignity, wisdom, a willingness to make sacrifices for others, listening to and learning from everyone, kindness. 

These are considered disqualifying:  self-aggrandizement, attention-seeking, arrogance, disrespectful speech, playing on people’s fears, bullying, and derogatory name-calling, which Maimonides saw as so indicative of bad character that it denies a person a place in the World to Come.  

What is your list, and who best embodies those qualities?  

In New York on Broadway, George Washington sings nightly to Alexander Hamilton, “History has its eyes on you.” But as a Jew in Florida, history has its eyes on you.  

My parents left me a legacy of strong values, courage in the face of fear, and disciplined discernment.  What legacy will you leave through your vote?

Rabbi Jan Uhrbach is Director of the Block/Kolker Center for Spiritual Arts at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and rabbi of the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons.  This letter is written in her individual capacity.

About the Author
Rabbi Jan Uhrbach is Director of the Block/Kolker Center for Spiritual Arts at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and rabbi of the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons. She previously practiced law.
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