More Cracking, Less Packing


I couldn’t resist writing a new post on this historic day. In the past week we have seen a lame-duck congress pass a couple of really significant bills:

  • Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – REPEALED!
  • 9/11 First Responders Health Care Bill – PASSED!
  • Tax Cuts for Everyone – umm…
  • START Arms Control treaty with Russia – Passed

Many people are applauding and marveling at the amazing progress made by Congress, but are our expectations simple too low? DADT should have clearly been repealed years ago, the First Responder’s bill should never have been held hostage by Republicans who were too focused on taxes, and we almost missed out on a no-brainer nuclear treaty with Russia!

And all of this is before we get the most radicalized new members of congress this country has ever seen!

Which brings us to the other big political news this week. The US Census has released the data that indicates how many congressional seats will be awarded to each state. With the new numbers of seats comes the redrawing of district lines, and that could be the secret to fixing a lot of what’s wrong with Congress today.

Too Much Packing

When politicians are tasked with redrawing district lines, they are essentially deciding which voters will be clustered together to choose a single candidate. For too long, the prevailing strategy has been what analysts are now calling “Packing.” This describes the drawing of a district to contain an overwhelming majority of one party’s supporters in order to all but guarantee victory for that party. This helps party leaders feel confident about the outcome in their elections, but it also has a very negative an insidious outcome.

Let’s explore a district that was packed by Democratic state leaders to be an overwhelmingly Democratic district. During the primary process, the electorate knows that the Republican candidates don’t have a chance. Because of this, Democratic candidates are not concerned with being moderate or appealing to non-Democrats. They are simply concerned with getting as many Democratic voters to support them. This often leads to candidates focusing on the extremists in their parties, and losing their perspective of what compromise and governance is all about.

When so many districts across this country are packed in this way, we find extremists populating Congress, and we see a serious decrease in willingness to “reach across the aisle.” There is less compromise and less cooperation. Congress can accomplish less, and the American people ultimately suffer.

What needs to happen is a little more Cracking.

The alternative strategy for redrawing district lines is called Cracking. This calls for the breaking down of packed districts, and the creation of districts that could easily by won by both Democrats and Republicans. In situations like this, the politicians are forced during the general election to get independent voters to swing in their direction. They are much more concerned with being considered moderate, and there is a sincere desire to govern towards the middle of the American populace.

Not enough State Governments are employing Cracking as their chief strategy for redrawing district lines, and the reasons are obvious. These decisions are being made by politicians! And if they want to stay in power, they must ensure their party will win more elections.

The silver bullet to solve this problem is independent commissions established to redraw district lines. I believe California is trying this, and it could work a long way towards bringing politics back towards the center.

This country has such low expectations for congress that we are amazed when the 9/11 bill passes – clearly something is wrong. We need to work towards punishing extremism, rewarding moderation, and stop allowing politicians to choose who gets to vote for them.



My Chanukah Dvar Torah


I really do wish more people at Mt. Sinai would write divrei Torah for the Kesher bulletin, but I also enjoy getting published on a frequent basis. So here is my short idea on Chanukah. (Thanks for fixing my typo’s and dangling modifiers to @thedailysnowman.)

OK – it’s time for the annual asking of the Chanukah Question: Are we celebrating the miracle of the oil or are we celebrating the miracle of the military victory? There are strong arguments for both sides, of course. On the one hand, a very small amount of oil was able to last much longer than it normally would have. On the other hand, a small ragtag group of Maccabees was able to fight off a larger, stronger and better trained Greek army. How do we decide?

I’m propose that neither of these is the true reason for celebration on Chanukah, but instead the victory and the oil, respectively, act as a prerequisite and a symbol of something much more important. What we are commemorating on Chanukah is the ability of the Jews to go back to living their lives without the fear of persecution, and without the threat of violence and war. They could stop retreating to the forest with wooden tops for clandestine daf yomi shiurim, and would no longer be pressured into publicly sinning to prove their allegiance to a foreign king. They could live freely and live normally.

Granted, the military victory was a necessary step in achieving that freedom. But a military victory is not an end to be celebrated. We do not rejoice in the injury or death of another people; we don’t relish the opportunity to fight, destroy and kill. While we pray to God for safety and security in battle, our true wish is for the war to have never begun in the first place. The victory was miraculous, but it alone would not have merited a holiday to continue for generations.

The supernatural oil is also insufficient to merit a holiday of its own. The environmentalist in me is happy for a Jewish example of how important energy conservation is, but if this was all about a jug of oil that burned longer than it should have, we would not still be lighting Chanukiyot today. The menorah was the most mundane of activities in the temple – it was as basic as turning on the light switch each morning. We focus on the Menorah because it symbolizes a return to the mundane, a return to the normal.

With so much disagreement and fighting in the world, we begin to lose sight of the goal. Life is not about defeating an enemy. Life is not about waiting for that one small miraculous event to inspire us. It’s about the daily ritual and the daily routine. It’s about connecting with family and friends, contributing to society, helping another person, performing a mitzvah, saying a tefilah. The war and the oil are the tangible events that we associate with this return to normalcy. Chanukah is an 8-day week designed to remind us to appreciate the freedom we have to live our lives with purpose and security.

Aaron Steinberg (@Steinberg) is a Mt. Sinai board member, Rena Weisen Book Club Member, and ‘The Knish Box’ Panoply team member. He and Adina have lived in the Heights for 3.5 years.

Not much of a hidden agenda in this dvar Torah – just wanted to emphasize that we don’t celebrate war, and should all be striving to live our lives peacefully. OK – maybe there’s a bit of commentary for ME Peace Process. Sue me.

Happy Chanukah!