Phyllis Blumberg is president of a Main Line Philadelphia synagogue, someone who has spent a lifetime practicing and contemplating Jewish values. Late last month, she was leaning toward Mike Bloomberg.
But she admits her son, Noah, 27, has been trying to make the case to her for Bernie Sanders.
And the case he’s making goes right to the heart of their family: their Jewish identity.
“My son says [Bernie’s] the one with the Jewish values, he’s the one who’s lived all his life that way,” said Blumberg, a former University of the Sciences administrator, and president of Congregation Beth Am Israel. “His case was: ‘He’s living his values. He’s living Jewish values. You raised me on this.’ ”
It’s a case progressive Jews are increasingly making, seeing in Sanders echoes of their own Jewish notions of justice and tikkun olam — repairing the world — and of more progressive views on Israel. Not to mention a visceral echo of familiar Jewish roots dating to Brooklyn and Eastern Europe.
At the same time, the secular Sanders’ views on Israel and his outspoken support for the Palestinian people present a stubbornly complicated picture for Jews of varying observance, economic, and political leanings as the 78-year-old comes into focus as potentially the country’s first Jewish president.
“He’s never rejected his Jewish background,” said lawyer Shoshana Bricklin, a member of the progressive Mishkan Shalom synagogue in Manayunk. "The values he puts forth are the values I grew up with: Protect the poor, deal with the most vulnerable, the widow and the orphan. It’s all part of our historical text. For me, it was a perfect match.”
“I think he has taken a courageous view of Israel and Palestine,” said Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. “His view is not quite in step with the mainstream Jewish community, and that’s a significant reason why a lot of Jews have shied away from him.”
Indeed, Rabbi Aaron Gaber of Brothers of Israel in Bucks County openly bristled at President Donald Trump’s suggestion last year that Jews who support Democrats are “disloyal.” But Gaber, a self-described “left-of-center moderate," also took no comfort in Sanders’ remarks about the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC providing a "platform for bigotry.” (At the most recent Democratic debate, Sanders called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “reactionary racist.”)
“The people he has surrounded himself with as advisers, and some of the stances he’s taken, that gives me great pause,” Gaber said. “They’ve bought into a theory and ideology where they can only hold Israel responsible. When the chips are down, will a Bernie Sanders administration support Israel? I’m not sure they will.”
There was a time when Sanders seemed to avoid talking about being Jewish, referring to himself generically as the “son of a Polish immigrant.”
But Sanders, who grew up in Brooklyn, has begun talking more about his Jewish roots, his view of the Bible as “a document of justice,” the family his father, Eli, left behind in 1921 later being killed in the Holocaust.
During a Feb. 24 CNN town hall meeting, Sanders somberly traced his commitment to fighting racism and white nationalism to growing up in a neighborhood with people who had tattoos from the Holocaust. He recalled a visit to his father’s town in Poland, where locals showed him a mass grave dug by Jews, who were then shot.
That had an impact on Rabbi David Ackerman of Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley.
“A lot of people found, frankly, comfort in Sen. Sanders’ presentation in which he really talked about his parents and grandparents and Eastern European Jewish background,” Ackerman said. “I think that resonates among American Jews.”
No doubt, Bernie Sanders feels familiar, like the crusty relative at the end of the Passover seder table, perhaps, engaged all night in heated arguments, the döppelganger of Larry David — an actor with serious Jewish, not to mention millennial, cred.
Young Jewish supporters have taken to calling him Zayde Bernie, Yiddish for grandfather, much like Hispanic supporters call him tío, or uncle. Philadelphia poet and writer Susan Windle notes the campaign slogan of “Not me. Us." echoes the saying of the noted Jewish scholar Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?”
“It’s a big tent, American Judaism,” said Windle, a member of Mishkan, a synagogue once considered so radical that the Jewish Exponent would not take its ads — but that now, much like Sanders, finds itself more in the mainstream.
“I travel in very progressive circles," she said. “Bernie’s agenda reflects their agenda. Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof, Justice, Justice, shall you pursue. It’s ingrained. I see him as culturally very Jewish. Nobody should question.”
'Usually the firebrands’
Sanders is the only candidate who lived in Israel — a few months on a kibbutz, in the 1960s, a common experience for American Jews in the days before the Birthright program. Bloomberg mocked him for embracing the socialism of those iconic collective communities, but others note that Israel itself was founded by a socialist, David Ben-Gurion.
In Sanders, the Vermont senator who describes himself as a democratic socialist, Windle sees echoes of Jewish activists dating back generations. “He stands in a rich tradition of labor organizers, big-time activists,” she said. “These are people that we recognize in our own communities. They’re usually the firebrands.”
The Sanders campaign believes it can build on his appeal with American Jews, almost 70% of whom disapproved of the job Trump was doing in 2019, according to Gallup. Republican attempts to make inroads with Jewish voters have had little success: In a recent poll of the Jewish electorate, 65% of Jews identified as Democrats; two-thirds favor any of the Democratic candidates, including Sanders, over Trump.
The Sanders campaign has hired a Jewish outreach director, Joel Rubin, a former deputy assistant secretary of state under President Barack Obama. Rubin said American Jews generally support “active American diplomacy and a two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“That’s squarely where Bernie is,” Rubin said.
Dan Laufer, 35, a North Philadelphia web developer who describes himself as “less religious than Bernie,” agreed.
“If anything, [being Jewish] strengthens his ability to maybe get both sides to a table,” Laufer said. “I’ve been to Israel. I have family there. I absolutely support Israel’s existence, but obviously this is a human-rights catastrophe that has gone on way too long.”
Rabbi Ackerman agreed that the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC is a divisive force but said Sanders’ comments still "got my back up, I have to say.”
“The AIPAC piece is a particularly complicated one because probably as many people in the Jewish community agree with him,” he said.
Benjamin Barnett, founder of Philadelphia’s Independent Film Festival, identifies as “a lefty who has never voted for a Republican," but who supported Trump’s decision to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Sanders’ views on Israel, and his alliance with Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who have been deeply critical of Israel, have “spooked me as a Jew,” Barnett said.
He doesn’t think Sanders is the person to negotiate a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
“I would hope Bernie would use [his Jewishness] in a way that would show positivity and give him street cred in the Middle East, as a Jew to walk in there, and not a messianic wannabe evangelical like Trump," Barnett said. “I just don’t think that’s going to happen.”
For Orthodox Jews, Sanders remains difficult to embrace.
“I appreciate that he’s proud of his heritage,” said Rabbi Ephraim Epstein of Sons of Israel in Cherry Hill, who is undecided. “But I view my heritage with more adherence to the Torah and its precepts."
“I am deeply appreciative of Mr. Trump’s steadfast support of the state of Israel," he added, "and recognize that every candidate has room to grow in their life.”
Aviv Yavne, manager of Star of David Kosher Grill in Narberth, said that he found Sanders “very cool” but that Israel keeps him a Trump supporter. “I have a lot of friends who are anti-Trump," Yavne said. “I tell them, I am biased. Because of Jerusalem.”
Two Jews walk into a debate
The sight of two old Jews, Sanders and Bloomberg, competing at the highest level of American politics had Jews doing a little head-shaking. (Bloomberg dropped out of the race Wednesday.)
“Maybe that’s the fight we need to have, between the oligarch and the socialist," Windle said.
As Jon Lovett, a podcaster and former Obama speechwriter, put it after the debate in which Sanders and Bloomberg discussed their heart stents: “It’s the most old New York Jew thing that’s ever happened in the history of American politics. ... The buttoned-up business Jew and the hippie-dippie tikkun olam Jew. ... I feel like I’m watching my childhood on stage.”
Others find it harder to relate.
“He’s not religious at all," Rabbi Gaber said. “When was the last time he was at a Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur service himself? He’s never really been active in the Jewish community.”
Film festival founder Barnett said his pride over a historic first would be muted. “I just don’t feel Bernie Sanders made any effort in his life to be a Jewish politician,” Barnett said. “There’s nothing in my body that says he’s going to be good for the Jews.”
Rabbi Ackerman, though, said he would feel pride if Sanders became the first Jewish president. Like many pondering Sanders, he’s taking his cues from his millennial children, who, he said, “definitely feel a sense of pride."
Others worry about anti-Semitism. Bloomberg, in particular, evoked a particular archetype, the financier buying his way into power..
“It’s eerily similar to the Golden Age of Spain,” Rabbi Epstein said. “The [Jewish] finance minister in the court of Ferdinand and Isabella didn’t fare well.”
But Laufer, the Jewish millennial supporter, said Sanders doesn’t get enough credit for representing a historic breakthrough, and for defying global divisions with prominent Muslim Americans among his most ardent supporters.
“Bernie would be a groundbreaking president," Laufer said. "You need that because of rising anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Having a non-Christian president would start shifting things in people’s minds.”