Elections

Bernie Sanders is Jewish. Do Florida voters care?

By Amy Sherman

asherman@MiamiHerald.com

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds up a bottle of water as he speaks about contaminated water during a community forum at Woodside Church in Flint, Mich., on Thursday.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds up a bottle of water as he speaks about contaminated water during a community forum at Woodside Church in Flint, Mich., on Thursday. AP

When Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders gave his victory speech after winning the New Hampshire primary, he noted that he was the son of a poor Polish immigrant in New York.

Here’s what Sanders omitted: He had made history as the first Jew to win a presidential primary in the U.S.

What’s newsworthy about Sanders’ religion is how little it seems to matter — and that includes in Florida, one of the larger states with a significant Jewish voting population. Americans are now used to seeing Jews in prominent political positions, so it is no shocker to see a Jewish candidate win a presidential primary. Sanders, a Vermont senator, is married to a Catholic, isn’t actively involved in the Jewish community and rarely brings up religion unless asked.

Sanders’ religion is an afterthought for Melanie Miller, an Orthodox Jew who grew up in Hollywood. She plans to vote by mail from Georgetown Law school.

“It would be cool to have a Jewish president but that’s not my primary concern,” said Miller, who remains torn between Sanders and opponent Hillary Clinton. “I am more concerned to find someone who aligns with my political values.”

The fact that Sanders is Jewish is “not being emphasized among Democrats — it’s not even a topic of conversation,” she said.

Pinpointing the number of Jewish voters in South Florida or in the state is a bit of a guessing game, since religion isn’t included on voter registrations.

About 3 percent of Floridians — about 650,000 — are Jewish and concentrated in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. But since Jews tend to vote in higher number than other groups, the percent of primary voters who are Jewish is likely a bit higher — in the ballpark of five to seven percent. A Pew survey in 2013 found that nationally 70 percent of Jews are Democratic or lean Democratic, which means the main battle for Jewish voters in Florida is between Sanders and Clinton.

“It is a primary. That means the importance of a smaller group is magnified,” said University of Florida political science professor Kenneth Wald, an expert on American Jewish culture. “Both candidates have to think about Jewish vote.”

Clinton — who is Methodist — has multiple high-profile Jewish donors in South Florida. She has a national Jewish outreach coordinator as well as a volunteer Jewish point person in Florida.

Both Hillary and Bill Clinton have a great deal of credibility in the Jewish community, said Ira Leesfield, a Jewish Miamian and longtime supporter of the Clintons.

“I don’t think Bernie Sanders makes a dent in that at all,” he said.

There was a much larger reaction in the Jewish community when Joe Lieberman, an orthodox Jew, was Al Gore’s running mate in 2000.

“The difference is Lieberman was very closely identified with the Jewish community and Sen. Sanders, as everybody noticed, is not,” Wald said, adding a Hebrew reference: “He talks in general terms of social justice — tikkun olam — but is not seen as somebody who had a base in the Jewish community.”

Ira Sheskin, a Jewish demography expert at the University of Miami, said “Sanders is more like a larger percent of Americans Jews to whom being Jewish is part of their background, more part of an ethnic identity than a religious identity.”

The world has evolved since 2000, says Bernie Parness, who heads up the Democratic club in Century Village in Deerfield Beach and is Jewish.

“We have an African-American president. Who knows, might elect our first woman president,” said Parness, who isn’t publicly taking a side. As for Sanders being Jewish: “I don’t think it matters.”

Sanders’ campaign spokespersons didn’t respond to requests for an interview.

Here is what is known about his religion based on news stories: He was raised by Jewish parents. His mother was from New York while his father emigrated from Poland, and some of his father’s relatives died in the Holocaust. Sanders attended a New York City public school, Hebrew school on the weekends and had a bar mitzvah.

In the 1960s, Sanders spent a few months on a kibbutz, one of multiple communal settlements in Israel.

“I am not actively involved with organized religion,” Sanders recently told the Washington Post. “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways. To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.”

HIs religion drew attention last summer when NPR host Diane Rehm made an erroneous statement that Sanders was a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen — a common myth about a long list of American Jewish politicians. He corrected her immediately.

The next day at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Sanders said “I’m proud to be Jewish,” and added, “I’m not particularly religious.”

Other times he has been more vague. When late-night show host Jimmy Kimmel asked him about God in October, Sanders said “I am what I am. And what I believe in, and what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together.”

Another sign that Sanders is not particularly observant: On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, he gave a speech at Liberty University, an evangelical Christian school in Virginia. His wife, Jane, recently told People Magazine that they had a Christmas tree in December.

The goal for Republicans is to ultimately chip away at Democrats’ dominance with Jewish voters — and to start that process in the primary.

The Republican Jewish Coalition started in December to identify likely Jewish primary voters in Florida, the largest swing state in the nation with a significant Jewish population.

Daniel Wilstein, a Jewish Republican voter from Palm Beach Gardens and a student at the University of Florida, said that he plans to vote for Marco Rubio in part because of his stance on Israel.

“The bottom line when people are thinking about Bernie Sanders: It comes down to his economic policy and his Democratic socialism,” Wilstein said. “What does that mean? How is that going to impact us?”

An article in the Forward, a Jewish newspaper, noted the irony if the general election ends up pitting Sanders against former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is Jewish and pondering an independent run for the presidency, and Donald Trump, whose daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism.

“And if you’re having trouble getting your head around a Jewish democratic socialist and a Jewish billionaire duking it out for the White House, just imagine if Donald Trump wins the Republican nod,” the paper said. “That would make him the only one in the three-man race with Jewish grandchildren who go to an Orthodox shul.”

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