Vote because I can’t

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster
January 12, 2012
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I’m an anchor baby. Born in the U.S. while my Canadian father was in rabbinical school, I was supposed to be born in Toronto. Indeed, my mother had plane tickets for Canada three days after my sister and I came a month early, surprise twins. I’m not supposed to be an American. But I am, even though I grew up in the Great White North. When we unexpectedly moved back to the U.S. in 1993, the border guards asked my twin and I (now all of 14), “Have you ever renounced your citizenship?” With a negative answer, we were ushered right in. Welcome home.

But my parents didn’t acquire citizenship until much later. Every November, my father would give a variation on the same sermon when elections rolled around. He wouldn’t tell us who to vote for, or even which issues were most critical. He would simply say, “Vote. Vote because I can’t. And you don’t fully understand what it means to be able to vote until you can’t.”

Unlike the U.S., Canada requires both current residency and citizenship to vote, and here in the U.S., my politically-minded parents found themselves completely disenfranchised. It was equally frustrating for them to realize just how many people didn’t care and didn’t vote.

Vote because I can’t.

As a younger voter, I took that mandate seriously. I voted in the first election I could, some school board election that I knew nothing about, and I continue to feel guilty whenever I miss a chance to vote. As my justice work has turned increasingly political, I actually feel like a fraud if I don’t vote. How can I demand changes to a system that I fail to engage with in the most basic way? And yes, I vote even when I don’t love the candidates. Those of us who can vote have a responsibility towards those who can’t.

I’ve always been politically engaged, and not just about Jewish issues. As a child, I wrote to the Canadian government about the plight of Soviet Jews but I also followed the collapse of the Soviet Union from my Walkman radio at Jewish summer camp. My bunkmates teased me because of how indignant I would get at times about the news from the outside world. I can’t help myself from engaging.

But I understand the temptation to withdraw. Younger voters are struggling in the moment—jobs, loans, families, deep uncertainty—and it can be hard to look past the immediate to delve into the root causes. Or we look too far away: I recently entered a conversation among friends about the upcoming Presidential election to discover that none of them knew about the profound effects of a recent Congressional redistricting decision on our town. It was going to require significant political infrastructure to deal with the consequences, a commitment greater than laughing over verbal gaffes in the primaries. But who has the time or the energy?

As an activist, I am also aware of the irony that push to engage younger Jews in Judaism via social justice has been so profoundly apolitical: we can teach kids via service learning but we can’t teach them advocacy or mobilize them to meet with their members of Congress.

But each time we have the chance to vote, we can change that dynamic. Voting should be low-hanging fruit: it is local, fast, and not that hard to do.

And it’s a privilege. I can’t quite call it a mitzvah, but it is a privilege. People around the world are dying for the right to vote. Many people here—immigrants, children, former felons—can’t vote either. Decisions are made by those willing to engage. With so much at stake, how can we afford not to?

My parents are citizens now, having finished their naturalization process in the shadow of 9/11. When my dad was sworn-in, we joked that he had lost one of his better sermons. But the message remains.

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Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is the Director of Programs for T'ruah. Ordained in 2008 from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she was a student activist and leader, she is a noted speaker and writer on Judaism and human rights, including speaking internationally on behalf of the U.S. State Department on the issue of human trafficking. Her writing has appeared on, the Forward, the New York Daily News, the Huffington Post, and many other publications. Rabbi Kahn-Troster was named to the Jewish Week's 2011 "36 under 36" for her human rights activism. She serves on the board of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, with her husband, Dr. Paul Pelavin, and their daughters Liora and Aliza.

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