I grew up the daughter of a significant citizen. As a child, I knew that my father left his law firm to work on New York Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s first Senate campaign and before that taught case method to students in Tanzania. I knew he stood on a soap box in Union Square during his college years to argue against McCarthyism and that he woke up early to read three newspapers of different political persuasions. What I didn’t know, until I was an adult, was how my father made the choice to take his civic obligations so seriously, why America and the possibility of good government meant so very much to him.
Last year, after open-heart surgery, my father began telling his children the story of his childhood and the challenges he faced as the son of a single mother with serious mental health issues. He told us about where he slept and where he hid, the books he clung to and the experiences he missed. My father did more than share with us his hardships; he also told us about his opportunities. He received an excellent public education, from elementary school through college; looked to local political organizations for needed after-school jobs; and benefited from public health institutions. By the time my father entered into the responsibilities of citizenship at age 21, he had a clear sense of gratitude to his government and obligation to his city, New York. This is not the case for most of my students.
For the past 10 years, I have taught civics and the great texts of American democratic thought to New York City public high school students and Columbia University undergraduates. I adore my students and admire their grit, curiosity, and passion. I recognize the many distinct experiences that rightly inform their relationships to this country. Yet despite their differences, my students have something in common: They share an overarching skepticism regarding the potential of government and the value of a free democracy.
We live in a country designed not only for personal freedom but for political freedom, for the rare opportunity to govern ourselves. The freedom to self-govern has always been an aspiration — contested and hard-won. It took almost 100 years for the three-fifths clause, which inscribed into the Constitution the violence of slavery, to be overturned by the 14th Amendment. It took almost another 100 years for the courts to fully apply the protections inscribed into the 14th Amendment. Without the vigilance and sustained action of citizens, American democracy can easily become an empty promise.
Democracy requires education. It is not enough to know American history or political philosophy; our students must also feel that political freedom is a gift worth striving for and protecting. How we teach this truth is one of the major challenges of our time. This is an American challenge but it is also a Jewish one. And it is a challenge our people can be at the forefront of addressing.
Jews have been among the great beneficiaries of American freedom. We have been free to practice our faith and to pursue opportunities. We have been blessed by security and insulated from fear. In 1984, Rav Moshe Feinstein urged all Jewish Americans to uphold the principle of hakaras hatov, gratitude. He wrote, “On reaching the shores of the United States, Jews found a safe haven…. It is incumbent on each Jewish citizen to participate in the democratic system which guards the freedoms we enjoy.”
Today, when democracy seems so very fragile, it is time to renew our commitment to the noble aspirations of this country and articulate how we, as Jews, will fulfill our responsibilities as grateful citizens.
Dr. Tamara Mann Tweel is the director and co-founder of Civic Spirit, an initiative of Hillel’s Office of Innovation, and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.