When Bernie Sanders made history earlier this month by becoming the first Jewish candidate to win a U.S. presidential primary election, the reaction in many Jewish quarters was subdued.
While many noted the milestone with satisfaction, the surge by the Independent senator from Vermont has created a quandary for many Jewish voters. For some, especially supporters of Hillary Clinton, he is an unwelcome distraction from what should have been a cakewalk for the former secretary of state.
Others note that the self-described democratic socialist — who has made economic inequality in America the centerpiece of his campaign — doesn’t “own” his Jewishness (as a JTA headline put it recently) and only rarely utters the word “Jewish” on the national political stage.
“Jewish pride in voting for Bernie Sanders would mean more if Bernie Sanders wears his Jewish identity on his sleeve, which he doesn’t,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “He is not trying to fake it, but it is not something he clearly shows off.”
Still, some local observers are excited about Sanders, precisely because of the way he represents a historical strain of secular Jewish liberalism.
Bennett Muraskin, a Parsippany resident and a leader of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations in New Jersey, considers Sanders “a breath of fresh air.”
“He identifies himself as a socialist, and it is a great thing, because he is pushing Hillary to take positions that are much more progressive because he is raising these social justice issues,” Muraskin told NJJN. “I don’t see any negatives to him. It is all good.”
Judy May, who resides in the borough of Lebanon, agreed.
“Hillary feels she has a sense of entitlement she does not really deserve, and I don’t think she is an inspiring leader. But Bernie represents the whole Jewish concept of perfecting the world. The Jewish community cannot be a safe community or a happy community if people are suffering around us.
“He is so on target for everything I have ever been taught as a Jew,” she said.
Other Jewish voters find less clarity in some of his positions and are troubled that he hasn’t made more of his Jewish background. They note that last year, on Rosh Hashana, Sanders addressed the conservative student body at Liberty University, the evangelical college founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Although Sanders has stated, “I’m Jewish. My father’s family died in concentration camps. I will do everything that I can to rid this country of the ugly stain of racism,” some doubt his commitment to one key Jewish issue.
Among them is Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood, who has been a strong supporter of both Bill and Hillary Clinton since the 1990s.
Genack, head of the kashrut division of the Orthodox Union, told NJJN, “I am very concerned about Sanders because, aside from his socialist agenda, his support for Israel has not been strong. I would not support Sanders if he were the nominee.”
Ellen Goldner of Mountain Lakes, a prominent local Jewish philanthropist and community leader, calls herself “a left-wing Democrat who happens to love Bernie Sanders’s politics, but I am much more of a Hillary fan.”
“I don’t think there is a problem with his support of Israel,” she said, but emphasized, “I think Hillary is brilliant. I think she knows every topic off the top of her head. To listen to her is incredible. I don’t think there is anyone smarter.”
As the first female president of what is now the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, Goldner considers herself part “of the glass-ceiling generation. But I don’t think the young women of today understand the struggles we had to break that ceiling.”
But, Goldner added, “Bernie would also break a glass ceiling because we have never had a Jewish president either.”
Union resident Marty Schwartz said he remains undecided, weighing Clinton’s vast experience in government as a first lady, senator, and secretary of state against her vote in favor of the Iraq war when she served as a United States senator from New York.
“My heart is for Bernie but my head is for Hillary,” said Schwartz. “I think she is probably more qualified than Bernie to be president and knows how to work better with the Congress, so I find myself going back and forth.”
Like Schwartz, Barry Wolfensohn of Florham Park has yet to decide between Sanders and Clinton.
“The things Bernie says are good, but the question is, could they be passed? With Hillary the bar is set a little lower,” said Wolfensohn, who is an activist homebuilder with Habitat for Humanity. “She wants things that are practical. To my mind, can practical get us out of the hole we are in in terms of the economy and income inequality and racial issues? But if your bar is low enough, are things ever going to change? And if the bar is too high, nothing much will change anyway.”