Sanders keeps his Judaism in the background, irking U.S. Jews

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (L) prays with Jerry Falwell Jr., (right) president of Liberty University before delivering and address to Liberty University students in Lynchburg, Virginia, September 14, 2015. Photo by Jay Paul/Reuters

Sen. Bernie Sanders prays with Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, before delivering an address to Liberty University students in Lynchburg, Virginia, in September. Photo by Jay Paul/Reuters

NEW YORK — As Bernie Sanders headed toward victory in New Hampshire, pundits noted the barrier he was about to break: Sanders would become the first Jewish candidate to win a major party presidential primary.

But since that Feb. 9 win, instead of the burst of communal pride that often accompanies such milestones, the response from American Jews has been muted. One reason: The Vermont senator, the candidate who has come closer than any other Jew to being a Democratic or Republican presidential nominee, has mostly avoided discussing his Judaism.

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Sanders has baffled Jews by refusing to name the Israeli kibbutz where he briefly volunteered in the 1960s, sending reporters scrambling to solve the mystery. When they found the kibbutz, he wouldn’t comment.

In New Hampshire after his breakout win, he described himself as “the son of a Polish immigrant,” not a Jewish one. At a Democratic debate, he spoke of the historic nature of “somebody with my background” seeking the presidency, but didn’t use the word “Jewish.” A recent headline in the liberal Jewish Daily Forward newspaper read, “We Need To Out Bernie Sanders as a Jew — For His Own Good.”

Rabbi James Glazier of Temple Sinai n South Burlington, Vermont, said Sanders’ comments were being discussed by rabbis in the liberal Reform movement. “What did he leave out there? He didn’t say ‘Jewish Polish’ immigrant. Reform rabbis have picked up on this big time.”

Sanders’ lack of religious observance is not what rankles. It has become so common for Jews to identify “culturally” instead of religiously with the faith that the Pew Research Center, in its most recent study of the American Jewish population, used a category called “Jews of no religion.”

Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, also is not religious, but he was embraced for his unwavering support of Israel and his generous donations to Jewish causes. Louis Brandeis, who in 1916 became the first Jewish justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, did not practice his faith, yet he was the pride of American Jews. Brandeis went on to become a leading U.S. advocate for Zionism.

But Sanders, during more than three decades in public life as a mayor, congressman and U.S. senator, has developed few relationships with Jewish groups or leaders — on religious issues or on Israel. He has supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but has not made Israel in any way a priority.

“I would say that he has never been one of those in Congress who was active in a Jewish caucus, who turned out for Israel, who was involved in those issues — and he still isn’t,” said Jonathan Sarna, an expert in American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

Ironically, when Sanders gave his most religiously focused campaign speech, he only seemed to underscore his distance from Judaism. It was last fall at Liberty University, the evangelical school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Virginia, and he addressed the school on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, one of the most important holidays of the year.

Discussing his beliefs in the speech, he said he was “motivated by a vision” for social justice “which exists in all of the great religions.” But Sanders didn’t say he was Jewish. Later, he did stop in at a Rosh Hashana gathering at the home of the Lynchburg mayor.

The Sanders campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.

Stanley “Huck” Gutman, former chief of staff in Sanders’ Senate office, wrote in an email, “He is an old friend, a close friend — but we have very seldom, if ever, discussed religion.”

Sanders’ life follows a familiar arc in 20th century American Jewish experience: The son of an immigrant, he grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, which Sanders has said wiped out much of his father’s family. As a child in Brooklyn, Sanders went to Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah, but the lessons he drew from the teachings seem closer to a golden rule morality than specifically Jewish.

In the presidential race, he often sums up his religious views with the phrase, “We are in this together.”

“Being Jewish is very important to us,” his brother, Larry, said in an interview in England where he lives. “There was no problem of debate, it was just a given in our lives, just as being Americans was a given in our lives. But Bernard is not particularly religious. He doesn’t go to synagogue often. I think he probably goes to synagogue only for weddings and funerals, rather than to pray.”

Like many young American Jews in the 1960s, Sanders volunteered on a kibbutz, which news organizations discovered to be Sha’ar Ha’amakim in northern Israel. Irit Drori, who now lives on the kibbutz, said no one there remembers the presidential candidate and self-described democratic socialist.

“It was a socialist kibbutz,” Drori said. “If Mr. Sanders was interested in socialism, he could find people to talk about it with here.”

After moving to Vermont in the late 1960s, he eventually began his political career. But setting down roots did not mean joining a synagogue, though he sometimes would visit them. Rabbi Glazier said Sanders had been to Temple Sinai once — for a candidates’ event. The Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic community in Burlington said Sanders, as mayor, helped them overcome opposition to erecting a Hanukkah menorah on public land.

In 1988, he married his second wife, Jane, who was raised Roman Catholic, just as the national intermarriage rate was climbing so high that Jewish leaders began calling it a crisis.

In Vermont, where nearly 40 percent of residents say they have no particular religion, Sanders was rarely called on to discuss his faith. However, in the last couple of years, he has been facing increasing challenges about his support for Israel.

In a widely viewed video of a 2014 Vermont town hall event, after the war started between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, some voters demanded Sanders do more to protest Israeli bombing. The war killed more than 2,200 Palestinians in Gaza, including hundreds of civilians, and 73 people on the Israeli side. Sanders was among a small number of senators who didn’t co-sponsor a resolution supporting Israel in the conflict, which passed by voice vote.

Sanders said Israel “overreacted” with the intensity of its attacks, and he called the bombing of U.N. schools “terribly, terribly wrong.” But he also criticized Hamas for launching rockets into Israel. Israel has said Hamas is responsible for civilian casualties, since it carried out numerous attacks from residential areas in Gaza.

“I believe in a two-state solution, where Israel has the right to exist in security at the same time the Palestinians have a state of their own,” Sanders said.

Last year, Sanders was the first of several senators who announced they would skip Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress. President Barack Obama hadn’t been consulted, he said, and the speech was too close to the Israeli elections, giving the appearance the U.S. was trying to influence the outcome.

As a presidential candidate, Sanders said he consulted the dovish pro-Israel lobby J Street and the Arab American Institute, founded by Jim Zogby, on Mideast Policy.

“That’s not exactly a balanced view of the region,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which has not accepted J Street as a member. “I hope he has other advisers or will take other advisers. He’s never really been that identified that strongly with pro-Israel advocacy.”

While Jews mull the source of Sanders’ reticence about discussing his Jewish roots, they are relieved that a Jewish candidate can run without prompting an outpouring of anti-Semitism. Still, they worry that could change if he succeeds in the primaries ahead.

Sanders did offer a rare comment on his heritage last week on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” saying, “I’m very proud to be Jewish.” Sarna, of Brandeis, said the candidate’s religious identity is clear even if he doesn’t talk much about it.

“I think it is very much a statement about America that someone who everybody knows is of Jewish background and has a Jewish name and sounds Jewish from Brooklyn can get several delegates,” Sarna said. “There is a sense that only in America could a Bernie Sanders be a candidate.”

AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll reported from New York and Josef Federman from Jerusalem. Aron Heller in Jerusalem and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.