By Tomer Avital, (Sauvé Scholar 2008-2009)
“So you guys came all the way from New York to campaign in Pennsylvania?” asked the tattooed guy with a perplexed look. That was a repeated question. The community of Allentown had trouble believing that someone without receiving any money would go to the trouble of traveling to another state to campaign for a POLITICIAN he barely knows. That puzzled almost all the people we ran into once they opened their doors to us. I felt ridiculous and contemplative. What can I possibly say? That I came from a more distant location, Canada, or Israel, to be precise? Or should I confess that I’m actually a tourist and do not even have a right to vote?
What was I doing here? I had so many conflicts to resolve in my home state first, or to establish things in Sauvé House, and of course get things right in my messed up personal life. And here I am, going door to door in poor neighborhoods, trying to remove the veil of ignorance perpetrated by the McCain campaign. Some of the lies they told included the change of the polls from Allentown to another city, and people with child support problems would be arrested if they came to vote..
Before approaching the next door, I took several minutes to ponder what brought me to Allentown. It didn’t make any sense: I never took any interest in American politics. So what made me dedicate my time for this candidate? In Sauvé House you read a lot of newspapers. Had the constant positive Obama coverage made me fall for him? His candidacy looked fresh; supporting him became sexy. Or did I just want to feel good about myself? To help just because I support his policies cannot be the explanation, I was sure. There are so many people fighting for the right causes around the world everyday and I don’t lift a finger to assist them. So what make this time special? I wanted to understand it for myself, to decipher my motivation.
We continued walking and arrived in an immigrant quarter. “We just don’t want to vote for abortions lovers”. “Did you know that Obama is Arab?” ”We let God decide and we don’t want to interfere”. “It is all a scam, you vote for the head but the body remains”. We had answers for all of that (which almost never mattered) and we usually enjoyed the discussions. Eating lunch at a local bar I realized I still hadn’t made out what drove me here but at least it was worthwhile – meeting hard-core Americans – the kind that until then I saw only in the cinema. I thought about the other inspiring volunteers, Like Ed, a fellow Scholar who is a ‘tourist’ like myself, but went to do two weeks of canvassing in New Mexico. Does he know why? I suddenly remembered a Political Science class I once took. The professor told us that one of the greatest paradoxes is voting. There is no actual gain by wasting your time in the lines, and in a nation of millions one vote doesn’t matter. So a bunch of political scientists are offering a million theories to explain what pushes people outside their houses to vote. I thought about that when I ran into a large family for whom obviously every day of life is a struggle. They told me with pride they had already cast their vote.
Only when I returned to a chilly Montreal did I find my answers. First, I went to talk with a man whose opinions I esteem. He didn’t support Obama, but he empathized with everything I said. “Tomer, I think that while consuming the news, you noticed something that charmed you about Obama: his passion. You are jaded and you wanted to follow whoever harnessed such a rare quality”. That was interesting, but it didn’t feel like a sufficient explanation. Why then don’t I volunteer for other important and passionate causes? Then it hit me: I volunteer in order to stop volunteering. I naively believed that this time maybe It will be different. That this guy will eliminate the need for grass roots, – what Judaism calls Tikun Olam -, and will make me stop feeling ashamed of not volunteering in the last year. Wasn’t that why we have elections in the first place, to put our hopes and will in another man’s hands?
It took me back to the time we did community work in a soup kitchen in Jerusalem. Shelly Yehimovich, an Israeli member of the Parliament, whom I think highly of, came to converse with us. She said (with bursting passion) “You’re students, you need to rise up a level, you need to volunteer outside to help eliminate the need of soup kitchens: Volunteer so they will stop to exist”.
I think that the mix of all those virtues and the hope for a government that will take care of them is what made so many people go out to the streets. I truly hope that they are right. That ‘this guy’ will be the ‘real deal’ as one volunteer put it, and that the hundreds tears of joy I saw on Election Night were not shed for nothing.