CONCORD, New Hampshire — At a semi-circle table at the back of the True Brew Barista in downtown Concord, Rabbi Robin Nafshi of Temple Beth Jacob holds court on Thursday mornings. Congregants, or really anyone who wants a friendly ear, are invited to take a seat.
They talk about spiritual journeys, cultural concerns and political happenings in the state capital. Nafshi is practically a fixture at the nearby statehouse. Last week, she testified there on three separate items: a bill on genetically modified foods and the implications for Kashrut dietary law, a debate over whether to give Christian prayers preferential treatment at the state’s executive council (not surprisingly, she’s opposed), and a proposal to suspend the death penalty.
But even in a place where — as Nafshi describes it — politics is “the state sport,” there is one topic that rarely if ever gets discussed: the faith of the presidential candidate seemingly destined to win New Hampshire’s Democratic primary next week.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is already a historic figure. He is the first Jewish candidate to win delegates in a presidential primary or caucus — in fact, the first non-Christian presidential candidate to win a delegate. Come Tuesday, he is likely to be the first Jewish candidate to win a presidential primary election.
But Sanders’ faith is approached almost as an afterthought — a biographical addendum that neither he nor his supporters find worth discussing.
“It’s a guiding principle in my life — absolutely it is,” Sanders said at a Democratic forum in Derry, New Hampshire, on Wednesday night. But, he added, “everybody practices religion in a different way.”
For the state’s small Jewish population — Nafshi claims there is only one other person in Concord who wears a kippah “and he just moved to Florida” — this has sparked a mix of emotions. Like the handful of other New Hampshire Jews interviewed for this piece (and yes, it was a reportorial feat to find that many), Nafshi feels an obvious sense of pride that Sanders has broken barriers like his Democratic rival (Hillary Clinton being the first female candidate to win the Iowa caucus) and his potential Republican opponent (Ted Cruz being the first Hispanic candidate to win any primary contest).
But it is not so much pride in Bernie himself as it is in the place Judaism now occupies in the American cultural fabric.
“It has provided real education to America about the fact that Jews come in all shapes and stripes,” Nafshi said. “That no, we are not all keeping kosher or observing the Sabbath — that the way American Jews live our lives is as diverse as any group of people, perhaps even more diverse. I think that’s one of the things that has been really quiet educational with his candidacy.”
If there is one defining feature about Sanders’ Judaism, it is how un-defining it is. The senator doesn’t wear his faith on his sleeve in part many suspect because he isn’t really all that religious. He was born Jewish, lost relatives in the Holocaust and spent time on a kibbutz. But as professor Pamela Nadell, a prominent Jewish-American historian at American University, put it, “He is just not actively involved in the contemporary Jewish community.”
No clearer evidence of that could have come than on the day of the Jewish new year this past September, when Sanders traveled to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, of all places, for a campaign speech. But it’s true in his personal life as well. As Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, noted, Sanders is married to a non-Jew and his grandchildren are Christian (while Donald Trump has Jewish grandchildren).
“He is totally secular,” said Sarna.
Sanders’ public persona is so secular in fact that many of the people interviewed for this piece said they hadn’t even considered his faith. “It didn’t even dawn on me until tonight,” said Moriah Gavrish, 31, of Derry, who is a strongly leaning Sanders supporter.
Others simply viewed it as a hip oddity that only added to the candidate’s allure.
“It is a plus. It is a nice quality. I think highly of myself and I’m a Jew. It is new. It is trendy,” said Jack Johnson, 19, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, who stood outside the town hall forum on Wednesday. Alongside him was Justin Reynolds, 26, who lives in Derry. The two could probably be described as Bernie Bros.
“Have we ever had a Jewish president before? I don’t think so. It would be cool. We have a black president. Let’s do it!” said Reynolds.
Have we ever had a Jewish president before? I don’t think so. It would be cool. We have a black president. Let’s do it!Justin Reynolds, a 26-year-old Sanders supporter
To the extent that reactions like these reflect a cultural assimilation, they have heartened Jews in New Hampshire and elsewhere. But if indifference to Sanders’ Judaism was the main theme in discussions of the topic with New Hampshire’s Jewish voters, foreboding was the secondary one.
Should Sanders end up winning the Democratic nomination, not everyone is convinced that his religion will remain so politically innocuous.
“We are in a climate where it is not just [politically tricky] to be a Jew, obviously. It could be anything,” said Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett of Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, when asked if he was worried that the senator’s Judaism might be used in subtle or not-so-subtle ways against him in a general election. “It could be to be a Muslim, to be a woman, to be black, to be gay, any of those things. We are certainly not at the point in our society where those things are off-limits in some segments. And, yeah, I would think about that and would worry about that.”
Others are certain that Sanders’ religion would be used against him in a general election contest.
“It is rather curious that it hasn’t been brought up, but I would hope that thinking people have moved beyond that,” said Peter McVay, of Atkinson, New Hampshire. “Of course it will be [brought up in the general election], but certainly not by those who are thinkers.”
Whether Sanders’ religion ultimately is raised and whether the fallout is damaging are two very different things, of course.
Sitting in the back of the coffee shop, Nafshi recalled how vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman — a far more observant Jew than Sanders — was pressed during the 2000 campaign about his faith’s effect on his public life and how there was no apparent negative consequence for the Democratic ticket. If it didn’t matter then, she suggested, it likely wouldn’t now: “It would be hard to critique a president based on his religion when he will tell you first and foremost he has no religion.”
Lieberman went on to run for president in 2004 and never won a delegate. Through a spokesperson, the former Connecticut senator declined to comment for this article.
Since Lieberman’s bid, there have been many more examples of Jews either ascending to high office or aspiring to it. And for Jewish-American historians, that alone suggests the country is, indeed, comfortable with the prospect of one in the White House.
In an age when presidential candidates from Al Gore to the Clintons and Trump “all have Jewish family members and when there are three Jewish justices on the Supreme Court and when Michael Bloomberg might also throw his hat into the ring, a Jewish candidate is just not that newsworthy,” Sarna argued.
“If we had a mainstream Mormon,” he asked referencing Mitt Romney, “why not a Jew?”