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Observant Jews Shut Out of Democratic Caucuses in Nevada on the Sabbath

Nevada's Democratic caucuses fall on the traditional Jewish day of rest, which means some congregations won't be able to participate in a contest that features a Jewish candidate.
Photo by Charles Ledford/Getty Images

On the morning of the Democratic caucuses in Nevada, members of Rabbi Yitz Wyne's orthodox Jewish congregation gathered at Young Israel Aish synagogue in Las Vegas on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. A few skipped prayer services and kiddush — a blessing recited over wine — but others held fast to tradition, which prevents practicing Jews once a week from preparing food, switching lights on or off, or caucusing in the presidential election.


In 2016, Nevada's Democratic caucus falls on a Saturday, meaning that strictly practicing and politically motivated Jewish congregations across the Silver State are out of luck. That might not matter too much for many at Young Israel Aish, which skews more conservative, Wyne said. The Republican caucuses will be held three days later on February 23, so as not to overlap with the GOP primary in South Carolina. "But, there are also some Democrats with very strong liberal views in my congregation, which is why I try to keep politics out of the shul," he added.

Nevada is among 12 states, including Washington, Maine, and South Carolina that also have caucuses and primaries that fall on a Saturday this year. But Nevada is the earliest of those states to cast votes in the Democratic contest and will be the tie-breaker between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders after their respective wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. Sanders made history by becoming the first Jewish candidate to win a presidential primary less than two weeks ago, and has excited the Jewish community, although the Vermont senator has said that while he is "proud to be Jewish," he is "not particularly religious."

Sanders is also not alone in his identification with Jewish culture and ancestry, but not religion. In 2013, a Pew Research survey found that more than one in five Jewish adults in America identified as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular, while still considering themselves to be Jewish.


Related: Sanders Closes Huge Gap to Tie Clinton Nationally

Wyne said that Sanders's brand of Democratic socialism, which focuses on fixing income inequality and expanding social programs, particularly resonates with swathes of the Jewish community who are less traditional in their practices.

"Jews by and large who are not orthodox are liberal and Democrat, and my theory on that is that if a person has Torah and knows the Torah, that will lead them naturally to being more conservative," he said. "But if they know less Torah, social justice will be their religion because that is something that's so ingrained in the collective Jewish consciousness."

Yet not all reform Jewish congregations gravitate toward Sanders. Among members of Congregation Kol Ami, a largely LGBT synagogue in West Hollywood, Los Angeles, there is strong support for Hillary Clinton, founding Rabbi Denise Eger told VICE News.

"My congregation is heavily LGBT and they feel good about the Clintons — I see even younger people who are very active in the Human Rights Campaign who are supporting Hillary," Eger said. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT advocacy group in the US, endorsed Clinton in January, leading to some controversy among advocates and Sanders supporters over her late acceptance of gay marriage.

Eger, who is also the first openly gay president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis added: "I've heard about people who are really excited by Sanders, but none of that has to do with his Jewishness."


Rabbi Malcolm Cohen from Temple Sinai, a reform congregation in western Las Vegas, said that members of his synagogue are also quite split on politics, and some remain ambivalent about the growing prospect of the country's first ever Jewish nominee, or possibly even first Jewish US president.

"It's not simple to say [Sanders] is Jewish," said Cohen. "Zionists are a bit suspicious of him because they perceive him to be even-handed toward Israel and Palestine, where they would much rather he be more biased toward Israel's position."

Related: America's Largest LGBT Advocacy Group Endorses Clinton, Divides Community

There are more than 76,000 Jews who live in Nevada, and while Cohen said that the fact the caucuses this year fall on Shabbat might "annoy the hell out of some" Jewish people, "the proportion who would care sufficiently not to turn up at the caucus is actually pretty small."

But the race could be close. A CNN/ORC survey of Nevada Democrats released on Wednesday found the race essentially tied, with Clinton holding 48 percent support to Sanders's 47 percent. Polling in the state is notoriously unreliable, however, and Clinton recently held a 37-point lead there.

Traditionally on Shabbat, a designated day of rest, observant Jews hold firm to the commandment "remember the Sabbath and keep it holy," which precludes them from performing any kind of work, including driving, voting, pulling a lever, or writing until after sundown Saturday.


VICE News spoke with several rabbis who said they didn't expect the Nevada caucuses to pose any more of an issue for devout Jews than regular primaries in other states that will also be held on Saturdays. They noted that under Jewish law, there is essentially no difference if voters are physically moving around a room to vote in a Democratic caucus or casting a secret ballot in a primary. But many interpretations exist regarding what is "work," and the prohibitions and observance lessen as the commitment to orthodoxy lessens, they said.

The Nevada State Democratic Party has defended the decision to hold the caucuses on a Saturday, which is also the day of rest for Seventh-day Adventists.

"Saturday at 11am is the best time to increase access as much as possible for Democrats across Nevada to participate in our First in the West caucuses," Stewart Boss, spokesman for the Nevada State Democratic Party, said in a statement. "Keeping this date is critical to preserving our early-state status in the presidential nominating calendar."

Meanwhile, Fridays and Sundays, which are the days that other religions attend services or observe their day of rest, remain largely penciled out of the national primary calendar. In 2016, only Democrats in Puerto Rico will caucus on a Sunday.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields