Saturday, February 20, 2016

Observant Jews Shut Out of Democratic Caucuses in Nevada on the Sabbath 

On the morning of the Democratic caucuses in Nevada, members of Rabbi Yitz Wyne's orthodox Jewish congregation gathered at Young Israel Aish synagogue in Las Vegas on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. A few skipped prayer services and kiddush — a blessing recited over wine — but others held fast to tradition, which prevents practicing Jews once a week from preparing food, switching lights on or off, or caucusing in the presidential election.

In 2016, Nevada's Democratic caucus falls on a Saturday, meaning that strictly practicing and politically motivated Jewish congregations across the Silver State are out of luck. That might not matter too much for many at Young Israel Aish, which skews more conservative, Wyne said. The Republican caucuses will be held three days later on February 23, so as not to overlap with the GOP primary in South Carolina. "But, there are also some Democrats with very strong liberal views in my congregation, which is why I try to keep politics out of the shul," he added.

Nevada is among 12 states, including Washington, Maine, and South Carolina that also have caucuses and primaries that fall on a Saturday this year. But Nevada is the earliest of those states to cast votes in the Democratic contest and will be the tie-breaker between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders after their respective wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. Sanders made history by becoming the first Jewish candidate to win a presidential primary less than two weeks ago, and has excited the Jewish community, although the Vermont senator has said that while he is "proud to be Jewish," he is "not particularly religious."

Sanders is also not alone in his identification with Jewish culture and ancestry, but not religion. In 2013, a Pew Research survey found that more than one in five Jewish adults in America identified as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular, while still considering themselves to be Jewish.

Wyne said that Sanders's brand of Democratic socialism, which focuses on fixing income inequality and expanding social programs, particularly resonates with swathes of the Jewish community who are less traditional in their practices.

"Jews by and large who are not orthodox are liberal and Democrat, and my theory on that is that if a person has Torah and knows the Torah, that will lead them naturally to being more conservative," he said. "But if they know less Torah, social justice will be their religion because that is something that is something that's so ingrained in the collective Jewish consciousness."

Yet not all reform Jewish congregations gravitate toward Sanders. Among members of Congregation Kol Ami, a largely LGBT synagogue in West Hollywood, Los Angeles, there is strong support for Hillary Clinton, founding Rabbi Denise Eger told VICE News.

"My congregation is heavily LGBT and they feel good about the Clintons — I see even younger people who are very active in the Human Rights Campaign who are supporting Hillary," Eger said. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT advocacy group in the US, endorsed Clinton in January, leading to some controversy among advocates and Sanders supporters over her late acceptance of gay marriage.

Eger, who is also the first openly gay president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis added: "I've heard about people who are really excited by Sanders, but none of that has to do with his Jewishness."


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