What Bernie Sanders Really Believes

Jewish by background, secular in daily life

Believing Christians sometimes refer to themselves as “in, but not of” this world.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont seems to take an opposite approach — of, but not in, the American Jewish community.

The 73-year-old self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” is Jewish by background but secular in daily life. He doesn’t belong to a synagogue back home in the Green Mountain State, or in Washington, D.C.

Faith, or even a hint about it, just isn’t part of Bernie Sanders’ public persona.

And unlike other non-religious Jewish lawmakers, Sanders doesn’t make much of an effort to couch his far-left views in the tradition of tikkun olam (Hebrew for “repairing the world”) — nor the nebulous notion in American politics of “social justice.” Faith, or even a hint about it, just isn’t part of his public persona.

“Bernie Sanders is not the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of a Jewish politician,” the Jewish Daily Forward reported in 2010. “Sanders, the only self-described socialist in the Senate, doesn’t do much mingling in Jewish organizational crowds.”

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That distance from religion makes Sanders stand out from the rest of the 2016 Democratic presidential primary field as it is. Hillary Clinton, of course, remains the overwhelming favorite to capture her party’s nod. The former secretary of state and New York senator has long brought a Methodist “good works” sensibility to her progressive politics, going back to her days as first lady in the 1990s and in Arkansas before that.

Even a likely long-shot primary challenge, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, has built a public image as a working-class product of Catholic schools. A Democratic state senator in Maryland in January wrote in The Hill that “O’Malley’s Catholic values will propel potential 2016 run.”

Yet, while Bernie Sanders isn’t much a synagogue-goer, in a sense he reflects a certain strain of the American Jewish community. The senator’s accent is unmistakably Brooklyn-inflected, which puts him in well with other lefty Jewish social activists who moved from the big city to more rural environs. Think Ben and Jerry, both New York natives.

As the 2014 Almanac of American Politics notes, Sanders, son of a paint salesman who had emigrated from Poland, “became involved in radical leftist politics at the University of Chicago, and then moved to Vermont as part of the hippie migration of 1968 and worked as a carpenter.” After a string of electoral defeats, Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1981, then to a House seat in 1990, before joining the Senate 16 years later.

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Vermont was once a haven for these transplants, but a not-insignificant number have moved across the Connecticut River, into New Hampshire’s western edge. That could potentially benefit Sanders in the Granite State’s first-in-the-nation primary.

And that seems to be Sanders’ target demographic in his White House run. The senator, as the Associated Press reported, “has said he will campaign on populist economic policies to reduce income disparity and will bypass a campaign finance system that has becoming increasingly dominated by political action committees that can raise unlimited money.”

Sanders can still make certain appeals to the Jewish community as a relatively strong supporter of Israel.

Sanders can still make certain appeals to the Jewish community as a relatively strong supporter of Israel. He refused to criticize Israel’s defensive military actions in Gaza in 2014. It’s worth noting that in Sander’s formative years, he also spent time on a kibbutz, around 1963.

And while not outwardly religious Sanders, usually rather gruff and no-nonsense in public, has shown an endearing sense of humor about a heritage to which he’s so inextricably tied by background and persona.

Case in point: BuzzFeed recently posted a video of a kippah-clad Sanders playing “Rabbi Manny Shevitz” in “the 1999 low-budget comedy ‘My X-Girlfriend’s Wedding Reception.'”

Sanders plays “Rabbi Manny Shevitz,” who reminisces about following the Brooklyn Dodgers as a youngster.
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