As many of you know, the Cantor and I will be leaving tomorrow to attend the annual meeting of the Mid West Association of Reform Rabbis. This particular gathering is without question my favorite of all my professional meetings and that is not just because it takes me annually to sunny and warm Scottsdale, Arizona in the midst of our Mid West winters. However, as much as I enjoy this annual gathering, this year it also makes me sad. It makes me sad because it will be pulling the Cantor and I, as well as the other Iowa Reform rabbis, away from the Iowa Caucuses. The Cantor and I have lived in this community for over 30 years and this will be the first time that we will not be attending the caucuses, and I feel very bad about that.
The Iowa Caucus experience is one of those “You-Had-To-Have-Been-There” type of events. It is not something that you can fully explain to others; at least not so that they can truly appreciate it. Our congregation draws from both sides of the River and how I wish we could give our Illinois congregants guest passes to the Caucuses just so that they can have the experience and not just assume that it is a glorified primary, for it is not. Indeed, on a personal level, being a registered member of one of the political parties, still I have this fantasy of being a fly on the wall at a caucus meeting of the other party, if for no other reason, the entertainment value of it all.
When the Cantor and I first came to Iowa, no political process could have been more foreign to us than the Caucus process. Growing up as we did in big cities of big states – New York and Detroit – our exposure to the political process was always rather impersonal and mechanical. Only once in my 25 years of living in New York City did I ever get to even see a presidential candidate in the flesh. It was Lyndon Johnson, back in 1964. He made a stump speech on the corner of Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Thousands crowded the streets and from my vantage point, he looked about a 1/4 inch tall and there was no way I could even begin to make out his facial features. Since we have come to Iowa, we have not only experienced candidates in small groups but have enjoyed personal face-to-face conversations with several of them and even have had some of them, like John Kerry serve us food at a pancake breakfast. Now how many Americans can say that they have had the current Secretary of State plop a couple of pancakes on their plate?
But as exciting as all of that is – and you have to admit that it is very exciting to enjoy the exposure and the access that we have to these stars of the American political scene – in the end it does not even begin to compare with actually participating in the caucus itself. For attending and participating in a caucus is almost like stepping back in history, to a time when America was a more intimate place and the political process was really very personal; when not only your vote counted but also your voice.
I have to admit that at the first caucus we attended, we were pretty much thrown for a loop. We didn’t know what to expect and we surely did not expect the small group dynamics which is the heart and soul of the caucus event. There we were, with this mass of people in this site when we were told, “Those who are caucusing for this candidate meet in this corner and those who are caucusing for that candidate meet in that corner…” and so on. So, a bit disoriented, we walked to where the supporters of our candidate were gathering. Honestly, I cannot remember whether or not the Cantor and I were supporting the same candidate. A head count was taken and then we waited to find out whether our group was viable; whether we numbered enough to meet the minimum required percentage of the total population of our caucus site.
Well, we did, but other groups didn’t. So, somehow or other a leader of our group arose – I am not quite sure how – and he started tasking us on how to approach the members of the non-viable groups and convince them to join our ranks. So we went out to hock our wares; to convince these people to throw their support behind our candidate. Suddenly we found ourselves being not just voters but campaigners; advocates for our candidate, promoting the strengths of our candidate’s platform. In other words, we were called upon to be informed of the issues and where our candidate stood on them. We were called upon, not only to present to others where our candidate stood on the various issues but also why we personally felt that our candidate’s take on those issues were so important for the future of America.
Then there came the point where we had to gather with our new “converts”, take a new head count, report it to the officials so it could be submitted, and the rest was history.
There are those in other states who mock the Iowa Caucuses and shake their head in disbelief that such a small and unimportant state should have such a significant say in the future of our nation. I am sure that part of their mockery is pure jealousy, but most of it is pure ignorance; ignorance of what the caucus process is really like. Back in their states, they will vote on candidates without ever having set eyes on them except on television. Some of them will seriously explore and compare the platforms of the various candidates but most of them will depend upon those horrible, back biting, blood thirsty, campaign ads for the making of their decision. They may or may not ever engage in a conversation about the issues and which candidate holds what position on them. With little or no serious discussion, they will walk into a voting booth and cast their ballot.
But we, on the other hand, have received the greatest gift democracy can offer; the opportunity to become highly informed on the issues, to seriously grapple with the different stands of the candidates, and to participate in an electoral process which is not just isolated and solitary but is vibrant and interactive, and most of all, one that challenges us to be the most responsible voters we can possibly be.
This coming Monday I will surely miss participating in that process but if you are an Iowa resident, you need not miss it. I implore you not to miss it, no matter what party you identify with. In our democracy we say that our elections are the voice of the people. No where is that more true than in Iowa during the Caucuses. So make your voice heard! Don’t be one of those pathetic Americans who, after all is said and done, rants and rails about their bitterness, and complains that they did not have a say.