“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
We all know these words from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1960, but what do they really mean?. How are they relevant to us in 2014, more than fifty years after President Kennedy’s assassination?
The Power of Citizenship: Why John F. Kennedy Matters to a New Generation of Americans by Scott D. Reich examines these questions, arguing that not only are these famous words still directly relevant, but they are particularly important to those of us who are not old enough to have heard them firsthand — the new generations of Americans who must carry out the Kennedy legacy.
Reich analyzes Kennedy’s upbringing, his call to public service, and his presidency through the lens of what he describes as the Kennedy brand of citizenship. All of Kennedy’s greatest accomplishments, actions, and decisions can be traced back to this ethos of citizenship — the notion that being American should be a source of pride and a badge of honor that comes with great responsibility; the idea that doing what is right is about more than just the law. The Kennedy brand of citizenship is a participatory one that recognizes all contributions, no matter how large or small. At its core, rather than a specific action, it requires a shift in mindset away from the “me first” mentality, toward prioritizing the needs of others.
Reich challenges us to look inward and to ask ourselves what we can do to make our country a better, more perfect place. Instead of being content just to set these lofty goals, though, The Power of Citizenship also helps readers translate them into action, providing concrete steps for where and how to begin. The book guides readers through how to choose a cause, get involved, and become an advocate.
What makes us uniquely American, Reich writes, is our ability to go above and beyond what is required of us. This brand of citizenship is not unlike the privilege and responsibility that come with being members of the Jewish community. As Jews, we are encouraged to give back, to stand up for justice, and to love our neighbors as we would ourselves. We are all capable of acting, whether by planting a tree, delivering Mishloach Manot on Purim, or caring for the elderly. We can all make the world around us a little bit better and do not have to be in a position of power to do so.
In a time when the country feels polarized, Reich’s book is an inspiring and empowering reminder that we have much to be optimistic about, and that Kennedy’s ideal is not out of reach. Each of us has the ability to fulfill his call to action.