Bernie Sanders is Jewish and the experiences he had as a young child, along with losses his family suffered from the Holocaust, helped him understand just how important politics truly is. Although he doesn’t participate in organized religion, he believes the most important thing anyone can do is to take care of others. Ironically, his focus on helping the poor and the less fortunate has caused some columnists to refer to Sanders as the most “Christian” of the political candidates. What exactly is Sanders’ religious background and just what does he believe?
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Bernie Sanders Is Jewish and Lost Relatives to the Holocaust
Bernie Sanders is Jewish. He was bar mitzvahed, attended Hebrew school, and even traveled to Israel to work on a kibbutz, The Washington Post reported. His older brother, Larry Sanders, has said that while they were growing up, it was never a question of whether they were Jewish. Being Jewish was as uncontested a fact for them as being American.
Larry Sanders has said that his brother’s bar mitzvah was a big gathering and their Jewish education focused mostly on grounding them in the moral code of right and wrong. However, a sense of darkness always hung over their family, with the knowledge that members of their family were killed in the Holocaust, including three of their father’s siblings. This loss helped Sanders understand very early in life just how important politics is and how very dangerous extremist politics can be, the Christian Science Monitor reported.
“A guy named Adolf Hitler won an election in 1932,” Sanders said during a press breakfast in June. “He won an election, and 50 million people died as a result … including 6 million Jews. So what I learned as a little kid is that politics is, in fact, very important.”
This also taught him what a deep stain racism can leave on a country, he said during a Q&A at George Mason University.
“I will do everything I can to rid this country of the stain of racism which has existed for far too many years.”
2. He Believes in God and Is Proud To Be Jewish, But Doesn’t Practice Organized Religion
While Sanders does believe in God, he doesn’t practice organized religion, according to The Washington Post. He has said that everyone believes in God in their own way and, to him, all of life is connected and everyone is tied together. His wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, was raised Catholic.
According to Sanders’ brother, Larry, Sanders is simply not religious. On Rosh Hashanah, for example, when many Jews take time off to worship, Sanders was campaigning at Liberty University, a Christian school. However, Bernie Sanders is very supportive of the Jewish faith. When he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he was asked by Rabbi Yitzchok Raskin to permit the lighting of an eight-foot tall menorah on the steps of City Hall. He agreed and also personally lit the second-night candles himself, while reciting the blessing in Hebrew, The New York Times reported.
Sanders doesn’t regularly attend synagogue, although he will show up for Jewish rituals, such as when the father of a close friend passed away. But typically, when asked about religion, he turns the focus to his political and moral beliefs. But he’s not afraid to speak up and share how proud he is of his background. “I’m proud to be Jewish (though) I’m not particularly religious,” he said during a press breakfast in June.
3. Sanders Is Grounded in the Morality of Helping Others
In a Democratic Town Hall in February (video posted above), Sanders was asked specifically what his religious beliefs were. He said that he believed the bottom line of every great religion of the world is “Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.” He said we should all be looking out for one another, not having a “me” religion that is focused solely on grabbing more things for yourself.
He has said that being raised by an immigrant father and first-generation American mother helped give him a sense of morality that is founded in Judaism and other faiths, according to The Washington Post.
I want to be treated with dignity and respect, and I want other people to be treated with dignity and respect. I think it is important that a sense of morality be part of our politics.”
4. He Could Be the Nation’s First Jewish President
Bernie Sanders is already making history in his bid for the presidency. He’s won more primaries than any other Democratic Jewish candidate for President in history. Joe Lieberman, who was the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 2000, also ran for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2004. He eventually withdrew his candidacy without winning a single contest, although he had initially led in polls.
If Sanders wins the nomination, he will be the Democratic party’s first Jewish presidential candidate. The Republicans already had a Jewish candidate back in 1964 with Barry Goldwater. This label’s a little tricky, however. Although Goldwater’s father was Jewish, Goldwater self-identified as Episcopalian, but he didn’t attend church. On rare occasions, he did refer to himself as Jewish, such as once in the Senate when debating a civil rights bill, The New York Times reported. However, Goldwater also said: “I was told I was an Episcopalian before I ever learned that my father was Jewish. But I am proud of my Jewish ancestors.”
Although many media reports say that Sanders doesn’t affiliate himself with a specific religion, he did say in a recent Democratic debate that he was proud to be Jewish, The Guardian reported:
Look, my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. I know about what crazy and radical and extremist politics mean. I learned that lesson as a tiny, tiny child when my mother would take me shopping, and we would see people working in stores who had numbers on their arms because they were in Hitler’s concentration camp … I’m very proud of being Jewish and that is an essential part of who I am as a human being.”
You can watch Sanders’ answer at this link.
5. Bernie Sanders Has Been Called the Most “Christian” of the Candidates
Although not a Christian, Sanders is still ironically referred to by some as the most “Christian” candidate because of his belief in helping others and reaching out to the poor. In a column for Kentucky.com, Paul Prather wrote that Sanders’ political positions “sound a lot like those of Jesus and his disciples: feed the poor, love your neighbor, heal the sick, welcome the immigrant.”
In a speech at Liberty University in September, Sanders said:
I am motivated by a vision which exists in all of the great religions — in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, Buddhism and other religions — and which is so beautifully and clearly stated in Matthew 7:12… ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets.’ ”