As the leader of an academic institution and a Jewish religious movement, I have little interest in wading into partisan waters. But this is no ordinary election and Donald Trump is no ordinary candidate. This isn’t about partisan politics; this about a fundamental threat to our democracy. And for me, it is personal. His rhetoric threatens my place within our great country and the place of all the wonderfully “nasty” woman and “bad hombres” among us who have built the greatness Mr. Trump refuses to see.
Let me tell you about my own journey. In so many ways, I am a child of privilege. I grew up understanding myself and most of my world as white, though I am the child of a black-haired, eyeglass-wearing, Yiddish-speaking man who was beat up on his way home from school for being a Jew. As a white child, I had a world-class education, first in the public schools of the suburb my parents moved to for precisely that reason and then at an Ivy League institution.
I came of age in the wake of second-wave feminism, just as professional opportunities were opening up for girls and women. And yet the novelty of women in leadership positions in general and as rabbis means that I, like so many of my female peers, have been touched inappropriately, underpaid, ignored, and talked over or down to. I also began my coming out process in New York City at the height of the AIDS crisis. “Your life will already be so hard for you as a woman rabbi,” my mother fretted. “How much harder as a lesbian?”
In the messy mix of my history of both privilege and struggle, I have flourished. Unlike Mr. Trump, I understand that with my accomplishments comes an obligation to create opportunities for other people who have been marginalized.
Jewish tradition teaches over and over of our obligations to those on the fringes of society. The Hebrew Bible repeats the adage “Remember you were a stranger in Egypt” no fewer than 36 times. The prophets admonish that we care for the widows and orphans in our midst. The rabbis insist that we protect the rights of the worker against abusive masters. The mystics of the Middle Ages describe a world that is shattered and broken and their modern, activist heirs build this imagery into a theology of tikkun olam, repairing the world.
And I learn about caring for those on the edge from core teachings of American democracy, from our motto e pluribus unum that imagines our unity drawn from the rich and varied diversity of our country and from practices that propose we mediate our differences through civil rights and civil discourse. My Jewish life, my progressive life, my marriage to my wife are possible because of the American cradle in which they were all nurtured. This American environment enables me to rise up as an authentic and integrated human being and contribute to the Jewish community and the American community, and to make both of them better.
As a Jew, I cherish my American democracy and work to strengthen it, for the sake of all Jews and all Americans, all “nasty” women and “bad hombres.” American democracy demands empathy. It encourages activism. It protects difference and urges us to believe that difference ultimately strengthens the whole. In the weeks leading up to the election and beyond, we all — within our communities and across our communities — must investigate and reaffirm our core commitments. We, Americans of all religious, ethnic, social and political backgrounds, must take steps to act on these commitments and thus revitalize our American democracy. We must champion civil rights; we must learn about and cultivate empathy for people who are different from us; we must vote; we must insist on respect for our democratic institutions; we must reweave the social fabric that has been frayed. We are all so blessed for this opportunity to live in this great nation. Let us continue to create a “more perfect union” through our efforts, through our growth, through the enactment of our values.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., is president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College/Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.