Opinion: Georgia's faith community needs to harness its power this election

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Georgia is vibrant, and that needs to be supported and celebrated.

I am a rabbi in Atlanta. Many members of my congregation have spent the last few months helping local organizations increase voter registration and voter turnout as we prepare for the Georgia runoff election.

While we don't endorse candidates, our faith leads us to care about specific issues — health care, immigration, economic and racial justice, the climate, and LGBTQ rights among them — and influences how we vote.

Much is at stake on Jan. 5, not only for Georgians, but for the whole country. 

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Across our nation, there is tremendous suffering and uncertainty.

We have seen so many programs that we care about become dismantled, and there is a growing sense of unease in the face of increasing racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, and other forms of bigotry.

People have lost their jobs, are unsure of their financial futures, and are uncertain of when they will see their extended family.

We need our elected officials to commit to effective policy, and to govern with their hearts and minds.The religious community has a unique opportunity to lead this effort.

The synagogue I serve was founded by gay and lesbian Jews. When I was ordained as a rabbi in 1999, I was serving a synagogue in Baltimore, Maryland. I loved it there, but I wanted to return home to Georgia.

I knew going home would present challenges. The Atlanta Jewish community is more conventional than some other Jewish communities — and I did not know of any other openly LGBTQ rabbis in the South during that time.

It was clear that I would have to expand my sense of colleagueship by building relationships with people outside my tradition, which is what I did. 

My interfaith work over the last 20 years illuminated a new Georgia to me that the rest of the country may not be familiar with.

After 9/11, leaders in the faith community wanted to rally around our Muslim neighbors who were being unfairly attacked. We were unable to do this right away, however, because we did not know each other.

We made an effort to break bread with one another and formed an alliance rooted in our shared values, diversity, and commitment to social justice. 

The faith community did not just begin organizing in 2001. The religious communities have been part of every social movement in the United States, most notably the civil rights movement.

Black voters in Georgia have shown up and organized election after election.

We are hoping to build upon that model to represent the diverse electorate in our state. Candidates up and down the ballot should do more to court progressive faith voters directly.

We need to prioritize direct outreach to this potentially powerful voting bloc. When religious leaders are included as partners, they can easily mobilize their communities around the salient moral and ethical issues that need more than a political response.

In 2001, I was the youngest faith leader in this interfaith alliance. Although we were able to accept each other and form friendships, I remember feeling frustrated that we could not have essential but difficult conversations out of fear of disrupting a perceived fragile connection.

Our new generation of faith leaders excites me because they are not afraid to ask each other tough questions and are committed to making sure we don't silo ourselves, particularly the Jewish community.

I work with a Muslim man named Munir, who has done tremendous work organizing in our community. He has organized volunteers — including faith leaders — working to get out the vote.

We have taken some of our organizing efforts online and are beginning to mobilize and connect our faith networks. This multi-generational interfaith network is needed to bolster the progressive religious community in Georgia and on the national level. 

Relational organizing, talking to people with whom you have connections and persuading them to take an action, is second nature for people of faith. Our relationships are the foundation for understanding our role in promoting the common good.

My father was a physician, and he taught me the importance of this connection. He started the Gwinnett County Community Clinic because he wanted to make sure everyone had access to affordable health care.

He rejected federal dollars because he did not want to turn anyone away on the basis of their immigration status. Whether they were documented or not, he was determined to provide them care.

Over time, Georgia shifted demographically. When he closed his doors in 2015, Gwinnett County and the people he served had completely transformed. It now looks like much of the rest of Georgia.

There are strong immigrant communities and many new Americans like my husband. 

Georgia is vibrant, and that needs to be supported and celebrated.

We may all be of different religions, but our faith and shared progressive values bring us together. We can be a leader in the new South by finding common ground and ensuring we protect people's most fundamental rights, particularly in these trying times.

The election on Jan. 5 will be a defining moment in our state because it could allow us to emerge as the Georgia we all believe we can be.

Joshua Lesser is a rabbi at Congregation Bet Haverim. He resides with his husband in Atlanta, Georgia.