Hebrew school taught us that there are 613 mitzvot, or obligations, that instruct us on how to be good people in the world. Among them are caring for the sick and welcoming the stranger. As Jewish professionals working with college students, recent elections have shown us a glaring omission in our current list of mitzvot: voting.
Jewish sages share wisdom related to voting. Hillel taught, “al tifrot min hatzibur,” do not separate yourself from the community (Pirke Avot 2:4). Rabbi Yitzhak taught, “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted.” (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 55a) But in our tradition, there isn’t a singular call to action for Jews to vote.
We launched MitzVote two months ago as an answer to that missing call to action. It quickly formed into an unprecedented coalition including 75 Hillels on campuses across the country and 25 partner organizations, ranging from MTV’s “+1 The Vote” campaign to the Union for Reform Judaism. Together, we engaged more than 760,000 people and helped almost 19,000 of them register to vote or get absentee ballots. The campaign, modeled after the process to become b’nai mitzvah, concluded with a celebration in the form of more than 55 poll parties to make voting more fun, hosted in partnership with #VoteTogether.
More than 700 students showed up to celebrate at University of Arizona Hillel’s poll party. The University of Connecticut Hillel partnered with MTV to sponsor a campuswide event filled with music, food and entertainment. In Ohio, the National Council of Jewish Women’s Columbus section worked with Ohio State Hillel to drive students to the polls to vote together, sharing why voting mattered to them and enjoying homemade cookies along the way.
These types of celebrations extended beyond campus as well. Beth Am Synagogue in Baltimore, an official polling place, hosted a celebration with a DJ and face painting, helping to make everyone feel welcome in the synagogue and in our democracy. Down the road, the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation focused on getting synagogue and community members to pledge to vote throughout the fall, culminating in a poll party celebration. And Rabbi Laura Novak Winer from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion even created a blessing for voting to sanctify the moment.
Voting in this election was a critical first step for many, but the mitzvah is not over. The 613 mitzvot are not items you can check off a list, but rather a roadmap toward leading a holy Jewish life. And while some are no longer relevant, such as animal sacrifice, rabbis and educators continue to update and reinterpret these original mitzvot to make sense of modern life. People who fulfill the mitzvah of not embarrassing others can’t simply do that one time and never do it again. They must practice this as a behavior every day.
With Election Day behind us, we must transition from the act of voting as a mitzvah to working throughout our Jewish institutions and communities to ensure we see voting as a mitzvah year after year, becoming ingrained in our Jewish values.
Imagine if all synagogues incorporated voting commitments into the b’nai mitzvah experience. Imagine pledging to vote at 18 in front of your entire community as you become a Jewish adult.
Imagine if our youth movements prepared to vote by letting the adults in their lives know why voting matters to them and what issues are most critical.
Imagine if at the start of every summer, camp counselors who were first-time voters were invited to come up on stage and be celebrated by the entire camp community, showing younger campers the importance of this ritual.
Imagine if every synagogue, JCC and Jewish school became polling locations, and Election Day was a community celebration. Doing so, especially in locations that are more accessible to the community, would allow us to model the importance of all people participating in democracy.
Imagine if we went out of our way to listen to our community members and neighbors about the issues that impact them and collectively were able to vote as a sign of solidarity with those who need to hear from us most.
In the coming days and weeks, we will find out more about the voting participation of college students and of the Jewish community in the 2018 midterm election. One thing is already clear: Voting is a mitzvah, and one we should not take lightly. JN
Sheila Katz is the vice president for student engagement and leadership at Hillel International. Evan Traylor is the associate director of college engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.