Social Responsibility and Civics for Our Children

My children would say that I forced them to watch the presidential debate.

One of them had shockingly preferred to play video games, one had wanted to watch her nightly Netflix show, one of them had suddenly wanted to make himself a gourmet dinner, one of them actually wanted to study for a social studies test (only the night before of course), but at 9 p.m. we were all in the living room.

I previously had had my children watch pieces of each convention and each party’s primary debates as well. I’ve had our oldest go to NORPAC lobbying days in our nation’s capital; I’ve had them participate in appropriate marches or rallies, such as the one over the Brooklyn Bridge in January; attend a very occasional Englewood city council meeting (with the necessary promise of Sammy’s Pizza to follow), and have tried, albeit not often with much success, to kickstart conversations about issues of the day at the dinner table.

Most importantly, as often as possible, I take my children into the voting booth with me and have them watch the process of voting and the priority to which I give the task.

In the Jewish world we constantly talk about chinuch — educating our next generation. Typically, we apply this concept to our religious practice or the system of Jewish values that we so cherish. That is why, during the High Holidays, people like myself, who are kohanim, take their not-yet-obligated under-bar-mitzvah-age children to participate in the holiday service of birchat kohanim (the blessing the kohanim convey on the rest of the congregants) — to learn our ways, to become educated as to what is important through experience.

Year after year we see an elected official who is on the ballot that year, or that guy in the synagogue who is politically astute, ask whomever gives the announcements on the Shabbat before Election Day to remind everyone to vote. In years free from the challenges of a pandemic, these announcements usually fall in between the shouting of mazel tov for some thankfully happy occasion and the calls for a kiddush with chulent to be sponsored. Perhaps in the weekly email blast there is also a throwaway line about the upcoming election; you remember it, the document that you look at Friday afternoon for a quick second to see what time Shabbat begins before you click out of email entirely.

In working every day at the Simon Wiesenthal Center to combat the growing anti- Semitism and anti-Semitic acts being perpetrated, we oftentimes need to rely on government. We find ourselves needing to rely on those enmeshed in the political system, in those individuals, bureaucracies, agencies, departments, and authorities that are managed either by elected officials or by those indebted to them for their positional appointments.

Put simply — in order to be effective in combatting anti- Semitism, in order to move the needle on issues of Jewish communal concern, in order for the Jewish world to attain the attention it requires to be successful in all of its diverse endeavors, in order to build the relationships that help our positioning in a world of needed intergroup coalitions, we need to be able to bring something to the table — we need to demonstrate unequivocally our understanding and participation in basic civics — and that starts with taking our privilege of voting seriously.

Communally we value the concept of chinuch immensely. In this upcoming election do not just pull a lever, or in this year’s case mail in a ballot, but show our next generation that you are doing it.

This year, in whatever way appeals to you, teach your children something about the process that we must partake in. Explain to them why they too will have a social responsibility at their age of maturity. We emphasize the well rounding of our children in so many ways — for the sake of the success of the communal agenda, for the sake of recognizing their great fortune to have a voice in the greatest diaspora nation Jews has ever lived in — this year involve them, teach them, include them.

About the Author
Michael Cohen currently serves as Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Mr. Cohen additionally serves on the Englewood, NJ City Council where he was recently elected to his third term. Mr. Cohen has previously held senior staff positions on Capitol Hill and in NYC and NYS governments for over 15 years. Mr. Cohen has also served as Director of Political and Strategic Affairs for a top NY lobbying firm.
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