November 2020 Bulletin Ref2

From Our President

An ailing President, losing his grip on his health and authority, allows family members to govern in his stead. The country is ravaged by a deadly pandemic made worse by the federal government’s failure to coordinate a national response. Rising fears of illegal immigration by unassimilable people of color spur increasingly strident demands to close the borders. Political rhetoric becomes heated, with many figures warning that the country is on the brink of a collapse into socialism; these warnings increasingly shade into anti-Semitism. And a wave of racial violence darkens the nation, leading to mass marches and demands for reform. A presidential candidate runs for election, promising a return to normalcy – and wins.

This isn’t a story of 2020, but rather one of 100 years ago. The candidate whose reassurances that the unprecedented disruption and fear would end when he took office was Republican Warren G. Harding. We know how the rest of the story goes. The Spanish flu abated, but as a nation, the United States did little to address many of the major problems that continued to simmer for the next decade plus. Many individuals voted fearfully in 1920, hoping to turn the clock backwards. They might have felt relieved and even energized by the economic boom and cultural developments of the Roaring ’20s. They could not foresee that they were headed toward the greatest economic crisis and the greatest international military engagement the country had ever experienced. And after the 1920 election, many deliberately closed their eyes to dangerous cultural and political trends that would lead to injustice, inequality, losses of liberty and happiness, and death.

As you read this month’s Bulletin, we stand again at a national crossroads after an electoral season that none of us will ever forget. Many members of our congregation have worked tirelessly to try to ensure that peoples’ voices are heard. Our members have helped to register voters, to educate them about their choices, to encourage turnout, and to address structural inequalities in our voting systems. I’m so proud to be part of a congregation in which people pursue justice every day. But just as was true in 1920, an election is but one facet of the political process. An election only starts us down a particular road. The general direction is set, but what that path will look like will be up to us.

Regardless of how you feel about the outcome of the election, I encourage us all to remember Rabbi Tarfon’s admonition in the Pirkei Avot: “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” (2.16)  This advice can help us to think Jewishly about where we stand now, and how we should respond. Whether our preferred candidates have won or lost, we should reflect on how we have reached a place when the country seems to be in a state of unbridgeable and irreparable division, fueled by hate. No electoral results under these conditions, no matter how definitive, can return us to normalcy.

We are in a new context, and we can’t just turn back the clock to a time when there was no public health crisis, and when we believed – perhaps incorrectly – that our democratic norms and values were fully protected and safe. We can’t forget what has happened, and we shouldn’t ignore what we’ve learned about the currents of racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of baseless hatred that circulate in our society.

These problems may feel overwhelming, and indeed they are too big for one person, or even one congregation to solve. But as individuals and as a community, we can continue to work for justice and peace. We can make sure that our elected officials know what we the people want out of our government. And we can work with each other to try to rebuild a civic culture that relies on the truth, trusts science, and cares about respecting individuals and groups. It won’t be easy, but we can insist on a healthier public and political sphere.

Because I’m writing before the election has happened, I don’t know if most of us are feeling elated, confused and anxious, or in despair. Regardless, our commitment to justice, and the urgency of that commitment, should remain the same.


Julie Novkov

B'nai Sholom Albany NY