Twenty years ago, I was sworn in as a U.S. citizen at the War Memorial building in Baltimore. I went to the ceremony as a duty, not seeing it as a particularly exciting or momentous way to spend a chunk of the day.
That was not the case for the person seated next to me. He was an elderly Chinese gentleman, the edge of his jacket sleeve still adorned with the cloth manufacturer’s label. My initial reaction was amusement that this gentleman – perhaps new to Western men’s clothing – did not realize that the elegant looking tag should be removed before wearing the suit. But then I realized something profoundly humbling: My neighbor had bought a new suit for the occasion.
He was an older man who presumably had lived through a great deal in a very different and difficult society. He truly appreciated the unique privilege of becoming a citizen of a country where he would be afforded freedoms and rights that in the past he could not have imagined. As a young man from Canada, I took all that for granted. As a Jew and a child of a Holocaust survivor and a Holocaust refugee, I should not have.
Many decades earlier, another immigrant, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein – a leading authority on Jewish Law – arrived on these shores. He had previously served for 16 years as rabbi of the town of Luban in Belarus but in 1936, due to increasing antisemitism from the Soviet authorities, he was forced to leave his post. That made him especially appreciative of the American Jewish experience, where – in his words – “the rights guaranteed by United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights allow us the freedom to practice our religion without interference and to live in this republic in safety.”
In October 1984, he penned a letter urging members of the American Jewish community to participate in the electoral process as an expression of a fundamental Jewish principle known as “hakaras hatov,” recognizing the benefits afforded to us and giving expression to our appreciation. To him, failure to exercise the right to vote belies a lack of appreciation for one of the privileges of living in this country. Our country has granted us a voice in our governance, and it is our duty to use it.
The man who sat next to me at the immigration ceremony, with the tag still affixed to his sleeve, appreciated the gift of living in this country. The opportunities, religious freedoms, and safety that this country provides allow us to live radically better than many of our parents and grandparents. Participating in the electoral process is a unique opportunity to express our appreciation and gratitude for something that I, and many others, often take for granted.