Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
The right to vote is not to be taken for granted. Throughout the millennia, Jews were deprived of the right to vote in virtually every country. Poland granted full emancipation for Jews in 1264. That was followed by France in 1791, Belgium in 1830, Greece in 1830, Canada in 1832, United Netherlands in 1834, Sweden in 1835, Norway in 1835, Ottoman Empire in 1839, Denmark in 1849, Switzerland in 1856, United Kingdom of Great Britain in 1858, Ireland in 1858, Italy in 1861, Austria-Hungary in 1867, Germany in 1871, New Hampshire (last U.S. state to enact full emancipation) in 1877, Bulgaria in 1878, Serbia in 1878, Brazil in 1890, Spain in 1910, Portugal in 1911, Russia in 1917, and Romania in 1923.
The greatest Torah authority to have lived in the United States was Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt’l (1895–1986). He served as rav of Luban, Russia in 1921, officiating there for 16 years. Seeking Jewish education for his children, he immigrated to the United States in 1926, settling in the Lower East Side of New York City in 1936. He was appointed as rosh yeshiva of Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem and authored Igros Moshe.
Through the years, Rabbi Feinstein signed several proclamations calling on Jews to vote and authored the following in 1984: “On reaching the shores of the United States, Jews found a safe haven. The rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights have allowed us the freedom to practice our religion without interference and to live in this republic in safety.
“A fundamental principle of Judaism is hakaras ha’tov—recognizing benefits afforded us and giving expression to our appreciation. Therefore, it is incumbent upon each Jew to participate in the democratic system, which guards the freedoms we enjoy. The most fundamental responsibility incumbent upon each individual is to register to vote.
“Therefore, I urge all members of the Jewish community to fulfill their obligations by registering as soon as possible and by voting. By this we can express our appreciation and contribute to the continued security of our community.”
Chassidic communities, over time, have acquired impressive sophistication in the use of their voting privileges. Realizing that they are, in effect, a block vote, Chassidic communities have learned to articulate their needs and make plain that their votes have to be earned. This year’s elections are somewhat less exciting since no president is to be elected. One result is an intensive outreach by Chassidic community leaders to energize their constituencies and have them come out to vote in increasing numbers. The population percentage of registered voters and, especially, the percentage of actual voters casting their ballots, generates careful attention by political officeholders.
Chassidic communities have been plastered with posters and full-page advertisements in Yiddish newspapers calling upon everyone to register to vote and to exercise their privilege of participating in the democratic process by actually going to voting locations and casting their valuable ballots. A broadside showing a large picture of the United States Congress advises that the votes in the present election are critical. In the next two years, the announcement proclaims, several highly important issues will be explored in Albany which will affect Chassidic communities, civically and religiously. Notably, two issues are highlighted. First, education investment credits that would allow tax-deductible gifts by companies, which would greatly help the tuition crisis for low-income families; and second, end-of-life and organ transplantations, which would allow early termination of life when certain medical criteria apply, irrespective of halachic considerations. Though this threat has been held in check by aggressive attention on the part of the observant religious community, including noble efforts such as that of Agudath Israel’s Chayim Aruchim organization, legislation is continuously being introduced to facilitate end-of-life termination by medical entities. Not only must legislation in this area be carefully monitored and countered, favorable new legislation must be introduced.
The lamppost posters further stress that the percentage of voters in the Chassidic community must be increased. Doing so will make political representatives more sensitive to Chassidic community needs and interests and other government officials respect such demands and sensitivities. The posters are being presented by the Ichud Hakehillos organization which, the posters and ads announce, include Torah and chesed organizations.
The Ichud Hakehillos messages are specific to Boro Park but apply to all Chassidic communities. The redistricting that went into effect two years ago adversely affected the community, and in order to reassert itself, a higher percentage of voters must vote to preserve benefits that are severely threatened. The redistricting is in effect for ten years, and the election cycle turnouts and results determine the political stature of the Chassidic community.
The current situation is due to the combination of the redistricting, which occurs once every ten years; city elections, which happen every four years; and state elections, which take place every two years. The results of the redistricting that went into effect in 2012, the city council elections of 2013, and this year’s elections will determine our standing for the next ten years.
The next hurdle will be the 2017 city elections as well as the 2016 state elections. Special elections, such as for incumbents who may have resigned or passed away, are of less consequence in that such elections do not fully test the voting strength of a community. The results of this year’s elections will be carefully studied and will be used as guideposts for the next ten years, until the next redistricting. Evaluation of this year’s results will determine which communities are strong, which political representatives must be respected, and where politicians will devote their attentions.
Boro Park, in particular, has been showing weak voter turnouts in the most recent elections. Boro Park’s political representatives are riding high on the results of previous elections in which turnouts were respectfully high. In order to continue their prestige, this year’s turnout must increase considerably. A 30% increase is the specific desired result.
Ichud Hakehillos notes that the end-of-life and organ transplant issues manifest our current predicament. Most organs are harvested from those who are brain-dead comatose. Medical institutions are disinclined to continue to provide life sustaining efforts and equipment, precious resources, to continue maintaining brain-dead comatose patients. Halachic considerations are not their determinants. In order to increase organs available for transplants, sustaining organs would be taken from such patients, prior to terminating life, thus ending their lives. Proposed legislation would have required every applicant for a driver’s license to opt-out of automatic agreement to organ donations. Such de facto acquiescence to allowing one’s own organs to be transplanted would have snared many inattentive applicants and given permission to the calamitous snatching of their organs, regardless of religious considerations. Variations of such legislation are being continuously proposed and reintroduced. Vigilance and political stature are the main deterrents.
End-of-life challenges increase almost daily, both from the continuing liberalization of life criteria as well as from insurance companies that do not wish to pay any monies for expensive life-sustaining efforts and equipment. The above-mentioned Chayim Aruchim organization is continuously challenged in fighting life-termination decisions being made by doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies. Chayim Aruchim’s work increases daily. Some cases have hit the headlines. However, many more cases are below the public’s radar, but nevertheless must be fought. The political weight behind those fighting such end-of-life situations is a major consideration in final decision-making. In the end-of-life battle, votes count and save lives.
Financial assistance for families, too, must be reckoned. Recent legislation granting college funds to eligible yeshivas and students are of considerable consequence. Providing bus transportation, as well as funding and proposed education tax credits can bring tremendous relief for families, especially large ones.
Community activists beg for everyone to come out and vote and thus strengthen the community’s political standing. The small amount of time that is requested pales in the face of the many challenges that exist, only a few of which have been cited herein. Quoting Mordechai in Megillas Esther (4:14): “If you remain silent at this time…”
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at email@example.com.