This past Shabbat, the four members of our family #ShowedUpForShabbat at four different synagogues. While my wife and kids went to a Tot Shabbat Friday night and a regular Shabbat Saturday morning, and all four of us celebrated a friend becoming bar mitzvah Saturday afternoon, I spent most of Friday at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, presenting about the Sinai and Synapses Fellowship, and how science can bridge interfaith divides. And the Shabbat service there — and even more so, its attendees — were a sight to behold.
I had never been to this gathering (this time in Toronto), which brings together representatives from all different religions. And when I say, “all different religions,” I really mean “all different religions” — yes, there were Jews and Christians, but there was a large contingent of Muslims, and Buddhists and Sikhs. But I also saw a booth for the “Union for Concerned Heathens,” people representing First Nations, and some religious garb I had simply never seen before.
My session — along with Fellows Ashlynn Stillwell, Gregory Simpson and Myriam Renaud — was in the early afternoon, and we went from there to a plenary session from the Union for Concerned Scientists, who shared the religious imperative to ensure the planet’s temperature doesn’t increase by two degrees Celsius. The plenary speaker reminded us that if we care about the planet, we need to take action. We need to show up.
The four of us then went straight to a Friday night Shabbat service held in a conference room. As I was thinking about the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue, and feeling even more solidarity with the Jewish community than usual, I was so touched that my friends (all non-Jewish) were kind enough to join me to welcome Shabbat.
As we walked in, I immediately noticed that it was an eclectic group. There certainly were some kippot. But there was also a man in a turban. A woman in a hijab. Several people with interfaith stoles. And as the rabbi began, she asked, “Raise your hand if Shabbat is not part of your usual practice.” About half the hands went up.
Looking around, I was thinking about all the people who showed up this past Shabbat in solidarity with the regular synagogue-goers who had been murdered in Pittsburgh the week before. Many of my friends had said they didn’t normally come out for Shabbat, but felt a strong need to. My wife later relayed that all the synagogues she had gone to were packed to the rafters. So I started wondering: what prompts some people to “show up”?
Indeed, this past Shabbat, the number of people showing up to synagogues across the country might have been comparable to High Holy Day attendance. And the number of non-Jews and clergy of other faiths who “showed up”, offering their psychological, financial and moral support, was stunning. For me, as I looked at the diverse Shabbat attendees at the Parliament, I was deeply curious — who was there because it was Shabbat and that’s what their practice was? Who wasn’t Jewish but was there to offer support for the Jewish community? Who was there because they wanted to experience a faith tradition different from their own? Who wasn’t Jewish but had found value in Shabbat? I had no idea. But they had all showed up.
And I’ve been comparing this to another way that not “showing up” is in the news. You may have seen an article in New York Magazine about why some young people weren’t voting in this election. Several of my friends shared the piece, expressing anger and contempt towards those who weren’t voting. But a deeper and more important question is asking, “Why?”
We in the Jewish community know intellectually that shaming people who don’t show up to synagogue is abhorrent and ineffective. We acknowledge that it’s much better to embrace those who choose to come — for whatever reason and at whatever level. But many of us still feel annoyed that “we” show up, but “they” don’t. Don’t “they” realize what’s at stake?!
It’s a lot of the same tension and dynamic in both situations. Those who “know” and “care” can’t seem to understand why others don’t. But invoking guilt and disappointment is not the way to communicate it. We need to start with truly trying to listen and understand why some people show up…and some people don’t.
In terms of voting, Jamelle Bouie has a very compelling insight as to why young people don’t vote. It’s not apathy or laziness, or that they don’t understand the importance of voting. Rather, “[i]f you’re middle-aged with a stable job and a fixed-address, [voting] is straightforward. If you’re anyone else, it’s less so.” The challenge with voting is that
…our voting system doesn’t actually encourage it, especially among people whose lives are defined by a certain amount of instability and unpredictability. Look beyond young adults to the larger population of nonvoters and you see a significant group whose lives are marked by traits associated with a lack of stability. They are less likely to have college degrees, more likely to have family incomes below $30,000, and more likely to belong to racial and ethnic minorities, making them more likely to experience conditions associated with instability.
Moralism and appeal to civic virtue may move some nonvoters off the sidelines in time for Tuesday’s elections, and if they live in states with same-day registration, they’ll be able to cast a ballot. But that “if” gets us to the larger issue: We will only have a culture of voting and high turnout if we build one. And if there is apathy and disdain for political participation, we should understand that it’s likely produced by institutions and systems that too often do everything they can to keep people from having a say in their government.
For those of us who are involved in institutions and systems, especially those of us who care deeply about religion, we often fall into that same trap. We bemoan the fact people “don’t show up” — but don’t realize the barriers we create for those who do want to enter that space. We may forget that Jews-by-choice, or Jews of color, or those who are intermarried may be trying to join… but are turned away, or simply turned off.
This past Shabbat led an unbelievable amount of people to show up for services. I’m hoping this election will lead an unbelievable amount of people to show up to vote, too. But rather than decrying those who don’t, let’s simply make it easier for those who do want to show up. And most importantly, let’s remember that everyone “shows up” for something they care about, or brings them joy, or helps them find support. Whether it’s Shabbat or a mid-term election, let’s make sure that when someone does show up, what they find there helps them reach those goals, as well.
Photo: Theresa Thompson