Bernie Sanders’ belief in Judaism and God may be in question, but his belief in the working class is undisputed.
At sundown this Friday, observant Jews at Charleston’s Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, one of the first synagogues in America, will set aside their worldly chores to spend the Sabbath in contemplation, celebration or prayer with family and friends.
Sen. Bernie Sanders will spend his Friday and Saturday campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president, either in South Carolina or points west.
On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement capping off the Jews’ most holy week, Sanders visited with Pope Francis at the White House. As the ram’s horn sounded to end the Days of Awe, Sanders was taking a taxi toward Union Station.
It’s safe to say Bernie Sanders is not a practicing Jew. He’s never claimed to give much thought to the religion of his youth. Or to spirituality. Or to God. Which begs a few questions: Is a presidential candidate’s religion a matter of public concern? And before we consider whether Americans can elect the first Jewish president, how about a more basic one: Does Bernie Sanders believe in God? As president, could he in good conscience end his first State of the Union with the line every president utters: “God Bless the United States of America”?
Some Republican candidates believe God should have a desk in the Oval Office. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio elbow one another to prove their worthiness to Christian voters. Ben Carson draws his base from evangelical Christians. Donald Trump deflected a reprimand from Pope Francis by touting his Presbyterian roots.
Hillary Clinton, Sanders’s opponent for the Democratic nomination, is a lifelong Methodist.
The junior senator from Vermont has been vague on spiritual matters. His spokesman, Michael Briggs, did not respond to questions, and Sanders didn’t comment for this article. Last October, late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel asked Sanders if he believed in God.
“I am what I am,” he responded. “And what I believe in, and what my spirituality is about, is that we are all in this together. That I think it is not a good thing to believe that as human beings we can turn our backs on the suffering of other people.”
Americans were not together with electing a Roman Catholic to the White House in 1960. John F. Kennedy was a dashing young senator, but many asked whether a Catholic president would put the Pope in control of America. But at least he believed in God and attended church. Almost every president since James Madison has prayed at St. John’s Church across Lafayette Square from the White House. Every president has been affiliated with a religion, except for Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. Barack Obama is an avowed Christian, yet some Americans still believe he’s Muslim. Clearly, a president’s religious affiliation matters.
In researching my book “Why Bernie Sanders Matters,” I charted the candidate’s receding relationship with Judaism. Over the years it became more rational than spiritual, more political than transcendental.
Politically speaking, Sanders often tells crowds he’s the son of Polish immigrants. His father Eli Sanders, did emigrate to the U.S. from Slopnice, a small Polish village in the path of pogroms, but he was more Jewish than Polish. He arrived in 1921 at age 17 with his brother and not much else. From all accounts, neither Eli nor Sanders’s mother, Dorothy, were observant Jews. They sent Bernie and his older brother, Larry, to Hebrew school on Sundays. Both sons became B’nai Mitzvah, but the Torah didn’t stick with young Bernie. Instead, Sanders recalled his father showing him an album of family members killed in the Holocaust. “Rather than religious training,” he told an interviewer in the mid-1980s, “the fact that my parent’s family had been destroyed by a government had an enormous impact on me.”
Sanders’ neighborhood of Madison Park, south of Flatbush, was a Jewish village in the 1940s and ’50s: Jewish butchers and bakers, synagogues on many corners, Dubrow’s Cafeteria the place to hang out after school. At James Madison High, where he was a track star, his classmates were Jewish. His fellow alums include Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sen. Chuck Schumer and educator Stanley Kaplan, among others.
Once Sanders left Brooklyn for the University of Chicago, he shed any outward Judaism. Revolution rather than religion was on the minds of Sanders and his fellow activist classmates. Sanders said he received his education on Chicago’s streets and the university library; he studied Karl Marx, who famously called religion “the opiate of the people.” After college Sanders did spend six months at an Israeli kibbutz, a communal farm. According to his brother, he came away with an appreciation for an agrarian, socialist way of life but learned little about practicing Judaism.
In 1966 Sanders married his college sweetheart, Deborah Shilling; she’s Jewish but it’s not clear whether a rabbi married them. They divorced less than two years later. Living in Vermont in 1969, Sanders had a son with his partner at the time, Susan Mott, but they never married. They named the boy Levi Noah, for one of the Jewish princes and a biblical figure, but they didn’t raise him to be a Jew.
Running for mayor of Burlington in 1980, Sanders met Jane O’Meara, then working with young people in an anti-poverty program. O’Meara was raised a Roman Catholic in a neighborhood not far from Sanders’ home in Brooklyn. At the time, she was divorced and raising three children. Sanders and O’Meara married in 1988, and she remains his steadfast partner.
When I asked Jane Sanders whether her husband is religious, she said: “We believe in Judeo-Christian teachings.” That seemed rather vague. I pressed, but she declined to elaborate.
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