As a Head of a Jewish day school, I can no longer remain silent about the state of our presidential election campaign, and its potential impact on our children. If I do, I fear I would be guilty of indifference. This is not a political statement supporting one candidate over another. My hope is to frame a response for our children about this year’s election. To be clear, we do have two incredibly flawed candidates each raising significant moral, ethical and perhaps, legal questions. Regardless of policy differences, character must matter in a leader.
Teaching Tolerance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relations, and supporting equitable school experiences, surveyed 2,000 teachers for a two-week period this past spring on how the presidential campaign was affecting their students, and their teaching. The results indicated that the campaign is having a negative impact on schoolchildren across the country, producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color, and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom. Many students worry about being deported. Many educators fear teaching about the election at all. Teachers also reported an increase in the bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates.
We can all agree that since this survey was taken, things have only gotten worse. While at Hillel, we have not seen these types of tensions or conflicts, we do know our students, even younger ones, are speaking about the election and the candidates to a degree we have not seen in the past. Most of it is constructive, in the context of learning – our eighth graders are campaigning for a cause, and our fifth graders are creating public service announcements about the importance and privilege of voting.
But I am concerned about what they will be hearing and seeing at home and on the news in the last two weeks before the election – and you should be, too. There are many times I have thought about writing to parents, encouraging shutting off the television and protecting our children from what is becoming a dangerous political fiasco. But we cannot hide them from this. So how else can we frame this election for our children, while acknowledging its ugliness?
We must tell our children that this election cycle does not represent the values of our country or that of the Jewish people. Like the Jewish people, America is founded and sustained by a collective narrative that defines who we are. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written about this, stating, “America has a national story because it is a society based on the idea of covenant. Narrative is at the heart of covenantal politics because it locates national identity in a set of historic events. The memory of those events evokes the values for which those who came before us fought and of which we are the guardians. A covenantal narrative is always inclusive, the property of all its citizens, newcomers as well as the home-born. It says to everyone, regardless of class or creed: this is who we are. It creates a sense of common identity that transcends other identities. That is why, for example, Martin Luther King Jr. was able to use it to such effect in some of his greatest speeches. He was telling his fellow African Americans to see themselves as an equal part of the nation. At the same time, he was telling white Americans to honor their commitment to the Declaration of Independence and its statement that ‘all men are created equal’.”
Our national story implores us to denounce racism, prejudice, antisemitism, and all inequalities and injustices perpetrated against any group, regardless of political, social, religious or sexual orientation, and to provide the conditions so that every citizen has a chance to achieve the “American dream.” This is who we, as Americans, aspire to be. Our democracy was formed to acknowledge, recognize and respect differences of opinions. Through the political process, the ideal is to debate the issues, with civility, and ultimately find compromise through common ground – a slow, never-ending and arduous process.
Unfortunately, we have lost our way, and will need to find our way back after the election is behind us. We need to actually tell our children that America is better than what we are seeing right now. We need to tell them that from time to time ugliness infects our political process, but ultimately we rise above it and get back on course. We have to hope this will happen again and take action by demanding it of our politicians. Our children need reassurance that this is a moment in time, and that we will not be passive citizens, but will actually use our voices to demand civility and compromise to get the process moving again for America and its citizens. This is something we should all commit to doing.
This is also a great time to share with our children a Jewish response to what we are witnessing in America. Like America, the Jewish people are defined by a collective narrative; our collective memory. Taking a cue from Beit Hillel, I will share it “while standing on one foot:”
“My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt and lived there, But the Egyptians ill-treated us and made us suffer… Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt…” (Deut. 26: 5-8)
Once we were freed from Egypt our narrative continues… “I command you today to love your God and to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments, His decrees and His civil laws so that you may live and that you may increase and your God will bless you in the land into which you are coming to take as a possession.”(Deut: 30:16)
As a Jewish people, our collective narrative informs our identity as Jews and expects that the Jewish people will act in an upstanding way. This includes a whole series of moral and ethical laws. As stated in, “My Jewish Learning,” – “The prime emphasis of holiness as described in Leviticus 19 is ethical. They call for just, humane, and sensitive treatment of others. The aged, the handicapped, and the poor are to receive consideration and courtesy. The laborer is to be promptly paid. The stranger is to be accorded the same love we give our fellow citizens. The law is concerned not only with overt behavior but also with motive; vengefulness and the bearing of grudges are condemned.”
It is amazing, and should be celebrated, how much America and Judaism have in common. We should make a point of this to our children. Even during uncertain, ugly and even dark times in history, America and the Jewish people are supported by the notion of hope – hope that our better selves, our common values, and our hopeful outlook towards our people, our fellow citizens and all humanity will prevail against all those who seek to undermine our democracy or threaten the Jewish people, here, in Israel or anywhere in the world.
It is with this notion of hope in mind that I encourage you to speak to your children about this election, calling out that which is ugly and immoral, and reinforcing the importance of respect. And when we go to the polls on November 8, may we each vote for the candidates who we feel will best bring back civility to our country, who will reach across the aisles to heal our country, and who will be willing to compromise for the sake of our democracy, for the sake of our nation and our the sake of our children.