In 2014, in the last midterm elections, just over 36% of eligible American citizens cast a ballot. In addition to being the lowest voter turnout in 70 years, this meant that fewer than four out of every 10 Americans determined the country’s legislative future for the subsequent two years. Minorities ruling majorities is not how democracies work.
Yet, the challenge persists. While disappointing, this should not be all that surprising. Difficult, multi-faceted problems demand sophisticated, complex solutions.
What is surprising is that so few of the proposed solutions have turned to the tried-and-true approaches of wisdom traditions – Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Native American, and more – that play central roles in the lives of so many Americans. While their relevance to modern life may not always be obvious at first glance, digging a little deeper can help us reimagine approaches for answering life’s big questions that draw on countless generations’ insights into human nature.
At Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, we apply particular Jewish wisdom to universal human questions, including how we might strengthen democracy and civic engagement. Most of the time, we prioritize support for others who are doing this work, but the recent Jewish holidays suggested a very concrete way that we could apply Jewish wisdom to our own team’s engagement with the democratic process.
In September and October, our offices were closed for seven extra days in celebration of the Jewish holidays of Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. Closing on these days did not disrupt our work; it deepened it. Our staff had the opportunity to focus their attention – in whatever ways spoke to them – on the holidays, and to bring the insights they gained from those experiences back to the workplace.
Of course, we did not invent the idea of devoting an entire holiday to its unique character. For thousands of years, Jews have dedicated their time and energy on each holiday to exploring and living out the meaning of that day: Shabbat to rest, Yom Kippur to t’shuvah, Passover to freedom and redemption, and on and on. The wisdom of this approach is that multitasking is hard, if not impossible (how many times has your phone or computer distracted you while reading this article?). And if we really want to commit to the deep, immersive reflective practice of rest, t’shuvah, freedom, or any other area of life, we do ourselves a disservice if we do not devote ourselves to it entirely at least one day a year.
But as the Jewish holidays ended, and Election Day approached, we realized that the standard American model for marking, celebrating, and engaging in the democratic process lacks this singular focus. Work is scheduled to go on as usual and, while New York law allows our staff to take up to two hours to vote, any time they’d want to allocate to supporting this essential democratic institution would have to happen outside of working hours.
Once we recognized this discrepancy, what we had to do became clear: We are offering all foundation employees the opportunity to spend Election Day staffing a polling site or participating in nonpartisan get-out-the-vote efforts instead of working out of the office. As with the chagim, we’re confident that this won’t distract us from our work; it will enrich it.
Could this model be applied to your organization or company? If it can’t, what other wisdom from the Jewish tradition can you bring to bear on the big questions facing our democracy today? (Let us know your great ideas through our recently-launched Prize competition.)
We do not expect this application of Jewish wisdom to lead to 100% voter turnout even if adopted across the nation. But even if the raw number of cast ballots increases only marginally, the impact cannot be measured so easily.
In the second century, Rabbi Elazar ben Shimon taught that every individual should view each action as determining the world’s fate (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 40b). Rabbi Elazar was not exactly a motivational speaker (this was the same man who said that it is better to grow olives than raise children – B’reishit Rabbah 20:6). So why would he come to this conclusion?
Maybe it was the 12 years he spent in a cave with his father hiding from the Romans and studying Torah (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 33b). Perhaps immersive, reflective experiences are critical to helping us understand the immeasurability of our individual impact – an essential lesson for the citizens of a healthy democracy.
Election Day is a perfect opportunity to find out.
Aaron Dorfman is the President of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah and a lifelong educator, problem-solver, and social justice activist. Rabbi Ayalon Eliach is the Director of Learning and Strategic Communications at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for living Torah and loves to make complex ideas digestible, relevant, and useful.