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Once in a while, I hear someone say, "I don't vote because my vote doesn't matter."
I can't help but shake my head.
A little over a century ago, in the middle of the night, a 7-year old boy from a small village in Western Russia fled for his life on a dogsled, speeding to reach the Polish border. Huddled with his mother and a few younger siblings, he was running away from state-sponsored anti-semitism, the Czar's army, and crushing poverty that provided little chance for a better future. As soldiers' gunshots sounded in the distance, he had only one thought on his mind: "Please God, let us get to America."
Within a few months, thankfully, he was able to make it the shores of the United States, immigrate via Ellis Island, and reunite with his father.
That boy was my grandfather, Reuben Solomon.
Growing up as a poor immigrant in the Jewish enclaves of New York City was not always easy. Not every American welcomed him with his strange accent and religious practices. But he kept his nose to the grindstone during the workday, honored his religious traditions, and, with my grandmother, pushed his children to work as hard as they possibly could in school.
My grandparents were never rich but when, years later, they witnessed their children graduate from American universities, they felt wealthy beyond measure. They were alive, they had built a loving family, and they were, most proudly of all, Americans.
When my grandparents walked into the voting booth on election day, it took on a special meaning. It wasn't only about fulfilling a civic responsibility or hoping that their candidates might win, although both of those were true. It was about saying "thank you" to the country that, even with all of its flaws, had given them so much including the freedom to vote.
Unfortunately, our country has not always granted all of our citizenry access to the ballot box. Women, African-Americans, Native Americans, non-Christians, the poor-all were denied this right at some point in our nation's history.
But courageous, prophetic leaders raised their voices and our country grew in its understanding of the sacred phrase: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal."
So, when you enter the voting booth this year to cast your ballot, I encourage you to take a moment for gratitude. Honor our founders who built the foundations of our democracy. Reflect on the great leaders who pushed America to expand voting rights to all of its citizens. And pause to consider all of those in autocratic countries who have never had the chance to vote, and perhaps never will.
As for me, when I vote, I like to think of my grandfather.
If someone would have told him that voting doesn't matter, I can imagine what he might have said:
"Vote because America matters."
Rabbi Eric M. Solomon
Beth Meyer Synagogue