Parashat Bamidbar

Two Minutes of Torah with Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky

"Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head"

—Numbers 1:2

By now, communities throughout the country are aware of the 2020 census. TV commercials remind us to take 10 minutes and complete the form online or by mail. Even Sesame Street is participating in the census, with its beloved Count leading the way. The census is mandated by the U.S. Constitution, happens once every 10 years, and determines many things from the number of seats a state has in the House of Representatives to the number of seats needed in a kindergarten class. We know the census happening, yet the current national self-response rate is only 59.6% as of May 18. That means that less than two thirds of our country has been counted. What will our communities look like if resources and funds were to be allocated right now, with only enough for 60% of the country?

Several weeks ago, I wrote about Census Sabbath and the materials available for clergy and faith communities as part of the Faithful Census initiative. Much of the source material comes from this week’s Torah reading, Bamidbar. The Israelites were commanded to take a census – an accounting of the entire community, by their name and tribal affiliation. This was valuable information and helped Moses and Aaron assemble the community. Through this census, they knew the size of the tribe, the lineage, and were able to make informed decisions about their military strength, how to move throughout the wilderness of the Sinai, and organize themselves as they entered the Land of Israel. The census created a living history and legacy for the Israelites and helped establish them as a viable, legitimate nation to other nations encountered along the journey.

This year’s census comes at a difficult time for our country. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not the first government initiative on people’s minds and taking 10 minutes to complete the online survey drops lower on many to-do lists. The census counts all people in a community, regardless of their immigration or housing status, and there are many people who fear the information gained from completing the census survey will result in negative action against them. These fears and complications are resulting in a lower rate of response in areas with large immigrant communities and impoverished communities. Yet these are the communities that stand to lose the most, to not receive enough funding and support if the count is inaccurate.

The Jewish community knows the importance of the census and is well positioned to be a leader in encouraging census participation. The commandment to conduct a census translates today to a moral and civic obligation to participate in our nation’s census, as well as help others participate. We must participate to ensure that our communities continue to thrive. Our obligation does not end when we submit our responses. Our community leaders must speak about and teach about this civic responsibility. Each response is more funds, more resources, allocated to our roads, hospitals, and first responders. No single county or zip code in Greater Washington has a 100% response rate which means there are still people in our schools, synagogues, and neighborhoods who are not represented in the 2020 census. We participate in the census for ourselves and our communities, recognizing that our community is strengthened through supporting each other.