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Josh Feigelson
President & CEO, Institute for Jewish Spirituality

I worked the polls, and I renewed my faith

This week my faith in humanity, and my faith in America, was renewed. It wasn’t because of the outcome of the elections. No, my faith was renewed because I served as a poll worker in a local precinct where I live. I remembered that democracy isn’t simply a word or a set of ideas. Ultimately democracy comes down to people softening their hearts in order to live together, to respect and trust one another. I witnessed that in spades this week, and my faith was renewed as a result.

On Tuesday, from 5 am until 7:30 pm, I worked with a team of three other citizens to run precinct 5 at Todd Hall Elementary School in Lincolnwood, Illinois, a couple miles from my house. Our team of four election judges was made up of two Republicans and two Democrats (I was one of the Dems). It was diverse: An Iraqi-American who immigrated in 1990 and just sold his 7-Eleven business (he’s a Republican). A retired teacher who comes from an Irish-Italian family and has lived in the Chicago area her whole life (D). An MD whose parents immigrated from India and grew up in a conservative Christian home (R). And of course kippah-wearing, non-profit exec, rabbi  me. That alone was enough to remind me of the precious miracle of American diversity.

But there’s so much more to it than that. We all had to wake up well before dawn in order to arrive at the polling place by 5 am to set up everything. We spent the next 14-plus hours together working side-by-side to run the equipment, greet and check in voters, and help them submit their ballots. We thus shared a sense of mission, effort, and a little dose of sacrifice (though, to be fair, we were paid about minimum wage for our time). We helped hundreds to vote—people who, like us, reflected an incredible array of skin colors, accents, foods, religious practices, geographies, and ideas about what’s best for our country and our communities. And in between voters, we spent time swapping stories, learning about each other’s families and histories—that is, doing the things that friends and neighbors do.

I spent most of the day staffing the poll books, welcoming and checking in voters. While on a busy day I might send a hundred emails and talk to 20 people on zoom or the phone, I found it profoundly energizing to greet hundreds of people face to face, to ask for their names and addresses, to have brief conversations with them, and to serve them. Some were in the wrong polling place. Some needed to register to vote (Illinois has same-day registration). Some needed someone to help them understand the ballot. Some needed to know how to use the voting machines. After years of virtual meetings, these physically proximate interactions about a shared civic project were life-affirming.

They were also trust-affirming. A few voters expressed skepticism: “Yeah, like my vote will actually be counted.” Or: “Use the paper ballot—less chance of fraud.” Or: “How come you don’t ask for my ID?” Being a real person with a real face and body, and standing aside my Republican colleagues, I was able to explain to them how their votes would be counted, that all the ballots are paper (it’s actually better to use the machine to make your paper ballot, because you can’t accidentally mark the wrong choice), and that we’re checking their signatures and addresses to make sure they are who they say they are. In an age when so many distrust the nameless, faceless “system,” my fellow poll workers and I put a name, face, body, and voice to that system. We re-humanized democracy—for our fellow citizens, and for ourselves. That’s foundational to the trust on which our shared democratic project depends.

There is a striking moment in Parashat Vayera when God has a conversation with Godself about trust, deception, and relationship. “Now the Holy One said, ‘Shall I conceal from Abraham what I am about to do?’” (Gen. 18:17) The Creator has decided that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are too far gone to continue and is determined to destroy them. The all-powerful could, of course, simply decide to do this. After all, God did it before in the days of Noah. But this time, the Ineffable has entered into a relationship with a human being: “For I have singled out [Abraham], that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of YHVH by doing what is just and right” (18:19). Once that relationship has been established, even the Almighty, it seems, feels pangs of conscience at the idea of not honoring it, of creating opacity where there should be transparency, distrust where there should be trust.

The dialogue that ensues includes perhaps the most righteous moment in Abraham’s life, his passionate conversation with God about the potential injustice God is about to commit: “Shall the Judge of the Earth not do justice?!” (18:25) God, of course, does not do what Abraham wants. The cities are destroyed, and we are left to presume that it was because not even ten righteous people could be found within them. (Though one also presumes that Abraham might have pushed God to go even farther down the numerical ladder but left off at 10, for whatever reason.)

What strikes me most on reading this passage this year, however, is the picture of relationship itself that is presented here. God and Abraham fundamentally disagree on what is appropriate, and Abraham argues stridently for his position. God could very well have not said anything and ignored the conversation altogether. And Abraham could likewise have just ignored the Divine and walked away. But, it seems, they were both committed to their relationship with one another, and thus they talked to each other. Most importantly, the Holy One made the decision not to hide or conceal, but rather to share, to meet, to talk and to listen.

Abraham and God shared a brit, a covenant, and I’d like to suggest that citizens in a democracy similarly share a kind of covenantal relationship—or, at least, we are better when we think of ourselves as doing so. We urgently need to recover our ability to speak the first word of the Constitution: We. It is such a fraught and challenged word today. At a moment when we are so divided, when we can hardly imagine how our fellow citizens could vote the way they do, how can we speak of “we” anymore? And yet: How can we not speak of “we”? Like it or not, we cannot ignore one another. We are destined to live here together.

Working alongside my fellow poll workers on Tuesday, I had a profoundly renewing experience of we, of being part of this unprecedented experiment in multicultural democracy. I say that my faith was renewed—and that is because, in working together to make our democracy work, we lived out and renewed the covenant we share, the covenant that is expressed in the first words of the Constitution: We, the People. May we continue to talk, to listen, to disagree peaceably, to respect the outcome of free and fair elections, to live with—and be committed to living with—one another.

Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD is President & CEO of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and a member of the Strategic Advisory Board of A More Perfect Union: The Jewish Partnership for Democracy. 

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD is President & CEO of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.