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Sanders Could Be The First Jewish President, But He Doesn't Like To Talk About It

Bernie Sanders speaks at conservative Christian college Liberty University in September, on the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. He quietly joined an observance at a nearby home after the speech.
Steve Helber
Bernie Sanders speaks at conservative Christian college Liberty University in September, on the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. He quietly joined an observance at a nearby home after the speech.

The conservative Christian college Liberty University is the last place you'd expect to find a Jewish politician on Rosh Hashanah. But that's exactly where Bernie Sanders was on the first day of the Jewish New Year.

As the campus band sang about the resurrection of Jesus, Sanders stood at the back of the stage. Then he delivered a speech about social justice. And when it was over, without any publicity or fanfare, he went to the home of Michael Gillette, the mayor of Lynchburg, Va.

Gillette says he and about 25 others were wrapping up a tashlich service, casting bread into water, symbolically shedding the sins of the year.

"He showed up just as that was being finished," says Gillette. "But then he joined us for a kiddush and a motzi [blessing said over bread]. So we drank some wine and had some challah, some bread together."

Gillette wanted to make sure Sanders could at least get a taste of the holiday after a morning spent at a Christian university, though he says they didn't talk about religion.

"The one thing he did say is how much he appreciated getting some fresh air and having some relaxing time on the back porch in the middle of a busy schedule," says Gillette.

If elected, Sanders would be the first Jewish president. But religion is something the independent Vermont senator rarely talks about. That is what made his remarks last week at a college town hall stand out.

"Let me be very personal here if I might. I'm Jewish," he said to cheers. "My father's family died in concentration camps."

Sanders was responding to a question from a young Muslim woman about Islamophobia, and he quickly shifted the conversation away from himself to more comfortable territory, talking about economic and social disparities.

Sanders grew up in the 1940s and '50s in a predominantly Jewish part of Brooklyn, N.Y. Sanders' older brother, Larry, told the publication Seven Days they went to Hebrew school to prepare for their bar mitzvahs but were basically secular.

"I'm proud to be Jewish," Bernie Sanders said in response to a reporter's question at a breakfast earlier this year hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. "Not particularly religious."

Sanders said Adolf Hitler's election, and his family's losses in the Holocaust, taught him about the power of politics.

"He won an election and 50 million people died as a result of that election and World War II, including 6 million Jews," Sanders said at the breakfast. "So what I learned as a little kid is that politics is in fact very important."

One of Sanders' best friends of 40 years is a professor of religion and philosophy at the University of Vermont. Richard Sugarman, an Orthodox Jew, says his friend is a secularist, a humanist — with no connection to organized religion. Above all, Sugarman says, Sanders is a pragmatist.

"Let me give you a phrase, and this comes from Levinas," Sugarman said referring to Emmanuel Levinas, a 20th century Jewish philosopher. "To know God is to know what must be done. He doesn't talk much about divinity. But he does talk about what needs to be done."

Sugarman said he can see much of what Sanders talks about in the Jewish tradition — the need for equality and economic opportunity, valuing workers. But he doesn't expect Sanders to spend much time talking about being Jewish.

"He's not into identity politics, and I don't think the course of this campaign is going to change him," said Sugarman.

Later this month Sanders is expected to give a big speech explaining a piece of his identity that some voters are struggling with. In the past, candidates including John F. Kennedy and Mitt Romney have given similar addresses about their religion. But Sanders' speech isn't about Judaism. It's about Democratic socialism.

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Corrected: November 2, 2015 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier Web version of this story included a quote from Sen. Bernie Sanders in which he said Adolf Hitler was elected in 1932. In fact, Hitler was elected in 1933. .
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.