If you’ve checked your email lately, and if you’ve ever given money to a political party or a candidate, you’ve surely noticed a lot of requests for volunteers and increasingly desperate calls for money. I was on vacation last week, not checking email—something I highly recommend, incidentally—and came back to approximately 40,003 emails from the sitting junior senator from Georgia, Raphael Warnock. I live in Maryland and can’t vote for him, but of course the political makeup of the senate matters to everyone, even those who live in senator-less DC. Here in the US, no matter where we live, we are all governed by the same Congress. (If you have not voted yet, or made your plan to vote, go ahead and do that instead of reading this—Election Day is Tuesday, November 8.)
When we open the Capital Jewish Museum in late spring 2023, we’ll talk about voting rights and our responsibilities as citizens to vote. We will welcome conversations about why voting matters—for our environment, for reproductive rights, for civil rights, for international geopolitics. We will have an extensive display of political buttons (read more about our collection here: https://capitaljewishmuseum.org/political-pins-and-jewish-voters/). These will help visitors explore the world of American Jewish politics because the buttons include advocacy for several issues (climate, immigration, Israel, and more) as well as both political parties.
Over the centuries, Jewish Washingtonians have advocated for all sorts of issues in the capital, and of course have served as elected officials and political advisors for issues ranging from disease control to immigration to antisemitism and everything in between. One of our staff favorites is Nettie Ottenberg, a social worker and suffragist who was a cofounder of the “Voteless DC” chapter of the League of Women Voters.
The Washington Suffrage Procession down Pennsylvania Avenue was the first such suffrage event in the nation’s capital, held on 3 March 1913, the day before President Wilson’s inauguration. National Woman’s Party leaders Alice Paul and Lucy Burns were there, as was featured speaker Helen Keller. Black suffrage delegations, kept out of the official program, were told by many state delegations to march in the back, but many, including a group from DC’s Howard University, instead marched alongside the white suffragists. I’ve been to a lot of marches down Pennsylvania Avenue, but I don’t think I can quite imagine the exhilaration and anger of the suffragists who—though of course they didn’t know it—were still 7 years away from reaching their goal. (If you have not voted yet, or made your plan to vote, now is the time!)
Nettie Ottenberg was 25 when she marched in the suffrage parade, and she had a long career in front of her. As a working parent who depended on daycare, I’m particularly thankful that in the 1960s she focused on expanding access to subsidized childcare. Ottenberg, “The Mother of Day Care,” was a founding board member of the National Child Day Care Association in DC. She also served as president of the DC chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women and advocated for Medicaid funding to pay for medical care for children living in poverty. Her Washington Post obituary (May 12, 1982) quotes her as saying near the end of her life, “I don’t have time to think about old age. I try to listen to the problems of today.”
Speaking of the problems of today, this election cycle in Maryland brings us several ballot initiatives that relate to judicial reform. Question 4 concerns the legalization of recreational marijuana–probably not an issue Nettie Ottenberg thought about very often, but who can say for sure. Recreational marijuana usage is already legal in DC and Virginia. Passage of this initiative would also expunge marijuana-related arrests and reduce sentences for previous infractions. (DC has one ballot initiative this year, about minimum wage for tipped employees. Virginia has none.) I’ve heard from several friends that they didn’t even realize cannabis legalization was on the ballot until they went into the booth to vote, and I’m here to remind you to read your ballot carefully before voting, if you still have time. (If you have not voted yet, create a voting plan: https://www.ncjw.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Create-a-Voting-Plan.pdf)
Criminalization of marijuana is not something we plan to address, at least right away, in the Museum (we do not have any artifacts to back up the story—anybody have something to donate?). However, the notion of criminal reform was notably one of Nettie Ottenberg’s most significant issues, one she came to after serving as a juvenile probation officer in children’s court when she lived in Philadelphia in 1906. Learning about Nettie Ottenberg, even just the small amount we have room to tell in the Museum, can open us up to wondering about Jewish Washingtonians in the past and what they would have thought about today’s issues. Having worked in children’s court, would Nettie have thought marijuana was detrimental to juvenile health and recommended keeping it illegal? Or would she have recognized the harm that possession charges for small amounts of this substance can do to young people’s futures? I certainly do not know, but part of my job is understanding that people are complex and hold many different roles over the course of their lives.
Cannabis legalization is popular in Maryland; a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found 73% of voters support Question 4. And there is a Jewish response as well, related less to drug use than to the impact of criminalization. Jews United for Justice (JUFJ) supports the initiative, noting on their website that “Black Marylanders are disproportionately incarcerated and policed” based on current drug policy. In fact, JUFJ thinks the proposed legislation does not go far enough to provide reparations to Maryland’s Black communities for the harm done over the years.
Every issue is a Jewish issue, especially the right to vote, and even the legalization of marijuana, because all the initiatives and questions we are responsible and privileged to vote for have a moral valence that can be informed by Jewish values. This year as we go to the polls (or fill out our ballots at home and mail them on time) we can invoke zachor, memory, and think about the activism that went toward giving us the right to vote. We can think about teshuva, or turning toward repentance, the idea that just because we made mistakes in the past with legislation does not mean we have to live with those laws forever.
As you vote this year and as you reflect on election results, think about those who marched down Pennsylvania Avenue more than 100 years ago, while keeping in mind that many of them did not believe in enfranchising all women. We can look to the past for inspiration and as a reminder to do better, as we continue to work to increase voting access. (If you have not voted yet, or made your plan to vote, please do so now!) See you at the polls.
Author: Sarah Leavitt, Curator
Image Caption: Nettie Ottenberg as pictured on the program for the 1913 Suffrage Procession, Washington DC, March 1913. / Capital Jewish Museum collection, Gift of Rachel and Louis Ottenberg, Jr.