I’m a regular voter: primaries, city elections, state elections, national elections. And while I’ve lived in many different parts of the United States, most of the time I’ve lived in places that were so clearly aligned with one party or another as to render my vote somewhat immaterial.
When my family moved to Atlanta from San Francisco in 2014, I assumed I was moving from a deep blue state to a deep red state — in other words, from one place where my vote didn’t matter to another place where my vote didn’t matter, whether I voted with the majority or against it.
But my son, who was not even 18 at the time, thought otherwise. Georgia, he assured me, was more complicated than that.
It turns out that my son was right. Georgia was, and is, much more complicated than I had presumed. Like many Americans, my knowledge about this central Southern state was very basic: Georgia hosted the Olympics in 1996. It is home to Coca Cola. It was home to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It has a vibrant Jewish community. And, even though President Jimmy Carter hailed from Georgia, I assumed the state was solidly aligned with the Republican party.
But my son, a student of American politics, had a different take. “Look at the history,” he said. “Look at the demographics.” Sure enough, we were not the only ones moving to Georgia. Increasingly, the state is attracting Americans from other places, who are looking for affordable housing and jobs, of which there are many. Immigrants to the United States are settling here as well, changing the demographics so there are more Latinx, African, Asian, and Middle Eastern Georgians than there were a decade ago. These changes, my son wisely argued, meant the electoral future was uncertain.
With each election that happened since we moved here, I began to see what he saw. To understand politics in Georgia, you need to understand more than the history of white supremacy and the enslavement of Black people in this state. The Civil War, Reconstruction, the active suppression of Black votes, and the civil rights movement are equally relevant — as are the very recent debates and policies on voting rights, redistricting, and polling.
In 2016, the Guardian ran a piece about the importance of Black voters in Atlanta, whom they saw as a bellwether of the New South. Atlanta is unique in that it, historically, has been a center of white supremacy (there was a reason it was burned to the ground) — and yet, today, as a center of Black southern power and influence, it’s ever more important in the national political landscape. At the same time, however, multiple appointees to the Trump administration hailed from Georgia — demonstrating how deeply the state is entrenched in conservative visions of white power. This is a place where the past and the present are struggling openly to envision the future.
I have learned a lot about Georgia in the last six years. I have driven on roads where house after house waves a Confederate flag; I have also seen tens of thousands gather at Pride marches and at the March for Women’s Lives. This is a state where Jews were active on both sides of the civil rights movement, and even today, the Jewish vote is split between parties. And while many people from other parts of the country assume this region to be “slow” — as in the multiple meanings of that word — I find that to be a stereotype that excuses Georgia’s racist past and present. It also denies the current creative, economic, and educational realities of this place.
As I said, Georgia is complicated. And that complexity became crystal clear in November 2020, when both senate seats were up for election, and none of the candidates got the minimum 50 percent of the vote needed to secure the election. So both of our seats — and with it, and the balance of power in the Senate — went to a run-off on January 5, with Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Black man, facing off against Kelly Loeffler, a white Republican who had posed for a smiling selfie with a known white supremacist; and 33-year-old white Jewish Democrat Jon Ossoff against white Republican incumbent David Perdue. A Democratic victory in Georgia would be groundbreaking — Warnock would be the first Black senator to represent the state, and Ossoff would be the youngest person elected to the Senate since Joe Biden took office in 1972.
As a rabbi, I have made inclusion the cornerstone of my rabbinate. That in and of itself does not dictate my party affiliation, but it does dictate the policies that guide my votes. Candidates who align with white supremacists will not get my vote. Candidates that are openly bigoted or support exclusionary policies will not get my vote. And, by using these basic criteria as a guide, I knew I was not alone: It felt realistic to hope that, in an election where two of the candidates had taken on the most radically exclusionary and bigoted policies we have witnessed in modern American politics, there was a good chance the moderates — in this case, the Democrats — would be elected.
Waking up to the news on Wednesday that Reverend Warnock had been elected, I felt optimism take root and grow into excitement — not only for what it meant for the Senate but also for what it said about my community. In the face of a blatantly racist campaign by Loeffler, more than half of my fellow Georgians chose positivity and inclusion.
Notes of congratulations from friends around the country began to populate my inbox. I wanted to pass them on to the legions of Black women, of all faiths, who have been fighting for voting rights in Georgia for decades. I wanted to pass them on to the Jewish mothers of all races who have been organizing for women’s rights. I also wanted to warn people that this outcome is no panacea: Georgia remains purple, and to be truly accountable to Georgians, Senator Warnock may ultimately be more centrist than some might hope.
Of course, as the day wore on, a violent mob stormed the Capitol in Washington, DC, and my positivity turned to disbelief, outrage, and horror. The very foundation of our democracy was being challenged and it was heartbreaking to witness.
And then, amid all the chaos, the news came that Ossoff, too, had been declared Senator-Elect, and my faith in our system was revitalized. That both the white, Jewish son of immigrants and the Black, Christian son of sharecroppers could both be elected to the Senate — from a place where white supremacy had ruled for over 400 years, at a moment where anti-immigrant bias is the law of the land — felt not only momentous but also deeply hopeful. And under my breath, amidst the chaos and confusion, I uttered the Shehechiyanu, the blessing that Jews say when there is a momentous happening that we expect to repeat: Shehechiyanu v’kihimanu v’higuyanu lazman hazeh. Thank you for bringing us to this moment. What happens next is up to us.
Header image by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images