What I Learned from Politics
Kador ken hanasi, kanisi ken hador / The generation is similar to the leader and leader is similar to the generation.
Talmud Yerushalmi, Mesechet Sanhedrin
Mi sheosek b’politika realit, ein lo eleh lachashov al esrim v’arbah ha’shaot ha’acharonot / One who is engaged in “realpolitik” must only consider the last twenty-four hours as being relevant.
Political contests are necessary sometimes, as well as military, to afford exercise and practice, and to instruct in the art of defending liberty and property.
From a letter to William Bradford, Jr. January 24, 1774
There’s perfect harmony
In the rising and the falling of the sea
And as we sail along
I never fail to be astounded by
The things we’ll do for promises
And a song
“All the Fools Sailed Away” by Ronnie James Dio from the album Dream Evil
Recently, I have been writing my Messenger column focusing on political issues that impact us as Americans and as Jews. This month I would like to share with you something about my own history in electoral politics. Yes, I was once involved in running for office. I actually served as a senator. You may be surprised and ask what state I served as a senator in. It wasn’t a state. It was a college student government, and I also ran as a candidate for president of that student government.
The election and its rules were unique to the college electoral process. There were some seven or eight candidates running for president. The rules were that the candidate who received the most votes would be president, and the two top runners-up would become senators in the student government. Other senate seats were filled by candidates that ran for the student senate.
I came in third. In recalling some of the details of that election, I can derive a few important lessons about politics in general; however, for the purpose of this article I would like to focus on some insights gained from that experience as to how we can make congregational Judaism more attractive and successful.
In that student election we were allowed to produce some campaign materials and distribute them and we all spoke at a forum; there were no debates, and the next day in the campus newspaper our pictures were published with a small blurb underneath that was supposed to be an excerpt from our speech that would point out the essence of the message of the speech.
The winner of the presidential election spoke about the lack of sufficient numbers of vending machines in the hall outside of the cafeteria and a few similar complaints. The first runner-up spoke in a very “high schoolish” manner blabbering about school spirit and repeatedly mentioned “that it was time that a girl, I mean a female, would be student government president.” She was surrounded by a gaggle of her girlfriends who giggled and chattered noisily as they escorted her. At that time, I was an activist in the anti-nuclear movement. I spoke about students becoming involved in issues that impacted the students along with the broader community. The remaining candidates were very poor speakers with an unintelligible message or didn’t even show up. The forum was poorly attended and few students actually voted in the election. The vast majority were extremely apathetic about a student government election.
There are reasons why the top three vote getters were successful and why the winner was the most successful in drawing votes.
I received the third highest total based primarily on presentation. I spoke with students who told me that they had voted for me, and they shared that I was the most articulate speaker and the most entertaining. At the time I sported long hair and a beard, and those students thought that I looked “cool.” A few I talked with actually remembered something that I had spoken about. The first runner-up seemed to have drawn her votes from the female students that she had pandered to. Her supporters had been approaching female students and urging them to vote for her because of her gender. It didn’t win her the election, but she did come in second. The winner of the election was not the most articulate speaker. However, he touched on a real-life issue that concerned students. When the cafeteria was closed, students would often go to the vending machines seeking food. Our campus was miles outside of town, and there were no stores close to the campus at the time I was a student there. There were an insufficient number of vending machines. Often they would be out of order. Students were frustrated. The most successful candidate was not the best speaker, not the most entertaining or informative, wasn’t cool looking, and didn’t appeal to anyone’s identity. However, he understood the needs and priorities of the students who were motivated to vote and gave them the best reason to vote for him.
In the past, people affiliated with a congregation because they felt that as a Jew they were obligated to do so regardless of whether they enjoyed the synagogue experience or not. Today, with the exception of our older population, that feeling of obligation is non-existent. If we are to be successful in drawing in Jews to the synagogue membership experience, we need to begin to identify the needs of the various subsets of Jews and then determine if we as a congregation can fulfill those needs. We need to emphasize our unique congregational identity and strive to provide a synagogue experience that is entertaining and enjoyable enough for others to want to be a part of. The next step is putting a plan into action. Realistically, we are not located in a major Jewish area in today’s demographics. However, there are Jews scattered throughout our area who I believe could be attracted to our congregation. Let’s put together a winning platform that meets the needs of potential members in our community.
Wishing us hatzlacha rabbah in our campaign, B’Shalom,