When you finish a book of Torah, as we did this past Shabbat, we utter the phrase “Hazak, Hazak, V’nithazek. From strength to strength, may we be strengthened.”
On the eve of the election, this feels like the perfect blessing for this moment. This is a time where we must find resilience. In a time of great uncertainty, anxiety, anticipation with the whole country watching, I am praying that we are strengthened.
In the backdrop of our election, our local Atlanta hospitals’ ICUs and ERs are exceeding capacity due to recent spikes in COVID-19. Georgia was the first state to reopen, despite being the home to the Center for Disease Control. There are many Jewish public health workers that are informally advising our congregations and communal organizations, despite the moral injury inflicted on them by a state and federal government ignoring their advice and constraining their voices.
Furthermore, since the election and the fate of the balance of the senate resting on the election of our two senators, the focus is on Georgia. That has led to a sense of increased pressure, regardless of party affiliation. And that external pressure has in turn, created internal pressure within our Jewish community.
I have the rare privilege of serving a congregation that is unified in its political affiliations and values so I have compassion for my colleagues for whom the runoff has exacerbated their political rifts. Also, Alisha Kramer, Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff’s wife, grew up at my congregation, and I have had a 15-year relationship with Reverend Warnock. With these personal connections and my belief that progressive faith traditions must demand justice and social repair, it has been a clear choice where to put my support and energy.
However, many rabbis and other leaders are needing to make calculated choices on whom and how to subtly support candidates. Since so much of this election has been about character and morality and essentially the candidates are running as pairs, the implication is that whichever side one supports the opposition is cast as morally bankrupt. This makes the necessary healing in the community quite hard, especially when some of the largest donors within the Atlanta Jewish community are substantial donors to Republican Senate candidates David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.
With Jon Ossoff, growing up locally one might expect more vocal rallying around his candidacy, uniting the Jewish community with pride much like I have seen with the Black communal enthusiasm of Reverend Raphael Warnock. Rather, I have witnessed a subdued tension. I also wonder if we Southern Jews fear that overt exuberance leads to antisemitic backlash.
In Georgia, I have witnessed Israel being used as a wedge issue, and it has divided the Jewish community. Having experienced this same tactic during the last gubernatorial race and even in attacks against Representative John Lewis z”l, it has worsened during this senate campaign with accusations of antisemitism against Reverend Warnock, despite many local and national Jewish leaders expressing their relationship with him dictates to the contrary. In addition to this fracturing the Jewish community further in Georgia, it has us less connected to the phenomenal change that is emerging in the landscape of the New South.
The fact that Georgia has two candidates, one who is Black and one who is Jewish, is a sign of Georgia’s leading the way of a new south. With organizations like Fair Fight and New Georgia Project working hard to battle the forces of suppression and engage parts of the electorate that has been ignored, discouraged and prevented from voting has created a vibrant exciting state that is diverse and multifaceted. Working with multifaith organizers, it has been heartening to see how much the emerging Muslim community has been working to get out the vote as a community. This is also happening with immigrants and with younger people, but I do not see as many Jews in these spaces.
There is a dynamism and buzz in this diverse Georgia that I have never seen as active as I have during these runoffs. It keeps me hopeful and committed. And while I am deeply appreciative of the traditional Jewish forums connected to a party or working individually, (nearly 100 or my members are volunteering in some GOTV effort), I do not see Jews collectively as a strong partner in what looks like key emerging partners in a new Georgia. I believe that for at least the progressive Jews this is the work that awaits despite the outcome. We need to strengthen our solidarity and coalitions beyond the expected.
Georgians have been overwhelmed by calls, postcards, texts, commercials and mailers all encouraging us to vote or assailing one candidate or another. We have turned out a record number of voters, thus far. Yet, the vast majority are looking forward to the end of this barrage. The President’s push to discredit the election while encouraging his base to still vote in a fraudulent system as he attacks our Governor and Secretary of State only adds to the chaos and the amplification of what is simmering. Unrest likely awaits at any result.
We are all in a pressure cooker that could benefit from some release, which may not come tomorrow, but in a week or more. There will be healing to do as a Jewish community and as a state. We could not need the blessing of “From strength to strength may we be strengthened” more than in this final chapter.
Joshua Lesser is rabbi at Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta.