For Shulem Deen, it’s that Bernie Sanders is a “passionate and principled elected official — a species I once thought could not exist.”
For Esther Mohadeb, it’s that the Vermont senator comes across “as a mensch, a person of integrity,” and that “he was a champion of women’s rights and LGBT rights before it was the cool thing to do.”
Ari Mandel stresses Sanders’ views on foreign policy, which he sees as consistent with his own belief that America has overreached in trying to be the world’s policeman, “sticking our nose where it doesn’t belong.”
Besides their relative youth (ranging in age from 26 to 41), Deen, Mohadeb and Mandel are joined in another crucial way — they all grew up in the New York-area charedi world, and then, after a period of soul searching, left the fold.
Deen, 41, who grew up in Borough Park and also lived in the Skverer community of upstate New Square, is the author of the award-winning memoir “All Who Go Do Not Return,” which chronicles in bittersweet fashion his upbringing in and journey out of the chasidic community. Mandel, 33, was raised in the Nikolsburg chasidic community in Monsey, N.Y., and now administers a 1,600-member OTD (“off the derech,” or the religious path) Facebook group. Mohadeb, 26, left her chasidic community in Williamsburg two-plus years ago and now lives in Brooklyn’s Kensington section and works as a web developer.
That the three are backing Sanders — who was beaten last Saturday by Hillary Clinton by 52-47 percent in the Nevada Democratic caucuses — is both surprising, given their upbringing in religiously conservative communities, and not so surprising, perhaps, given where they ended up. And they are not alone among ex-chasidim, who seem, anecdotally at least, to be solidly in Sanders’ camp. Admittedly, they are a small subset of the Orthodox community, itself a small (but fast- growing) part of the overall Jewish community, which tends to vote overwhelmingly Democratic in national elections. But as more institutions and support groups emerge to serve the growing numbers of those who no longer identify as ultra-Orthodox, and as their media profile grows, their voices may become more significant in Orthodox community debates and in the wider Jewish community.
“There is a lot of support for Bernie in our group,” Mandel told The Jewish Week, referring to his Facebook group. He noted that former chasidim tend to be questioners who “got to where they are” by challenging the beliefs and practices of their communities, and thus may in Sanders see something of a kindred spirit. He also added that if Sanders were not in the race, most people in his group would “probably support Hillary [Clinton]” over any of the Republicans.
And in this way they are starkly at odds with their communities of origin, which tend to vote for conservative candidates, at least in national elections (in local and state elections the chasidic community typically backs Democrats).
“I haven’t cast a vote in nearly two decades, but I will vote in this year’s Democratic primaries,” began a recent Deen Facebook post. The post featured a video of Sanders from 1995 excoriating a fellow lawmaker on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives for using an anti-gay slur during a debate about The Clean Water Act.
“Now my ears may have been playing a trick on me, but I thought I heard the gentleman a moment ago say something about quote unquote homos in the military. Was I right in hearing that expression,” a visibly angry Sanders asks.
After Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) replies that Sanders heard correctly, the Vermont senator, punching the air repeatedly with his left hand, said: “You used the word homos in the military. You have insulted thousands of men and women who have put their lives on the line. I think that they are owed an apology.”
The video opened Deen’s eyes to what a politician could be. “For curing my jadedness alone, Bernie Sanders deserves my vote.”
But Sanders’ passion and principle are not the only things about him that have motivated Deen to participate in the political process. It’s also his message about a “rigged” system controlled by elites in which the concerns of ordinary citizens are ignored that resonates. To Deen, Sanders could easily be speaking about the chasidic world.
“For me, it really ties into the world I come from because that was where I experienced my first disillusionment about the political process,” Deen said.
In the chasidic community, people are generally expected to vote as they are instructed by their leaders, in a bloc — something Deen says the leadership correctly touts as the source of the community’s political power.
From left, Mordy Karczag, Ari Mandel, Shulem Deen and Esther Mohadeb. Deen photo by Pearl Gabel, others courtesy of the subjects.
In fact, Deen recalls that the last time he cast a vote, in the upstate community of New Square, someone reached into the voting booth “his head coming through the curtain and…his arms…and before I know what he’s doing, he’s pulling the levers. And I looked at him so startled. And he said, ‘I was helping out.’”
Deen stresses that this happened to him only once and knows of no other instances in which something like this occurred. Nonetheless, to him it became a potent symbol of how little his own voice counted in his community, where support for politicians is negotiated through liaisons who typically represent the will and interests of the leaders rather than the rank and file.
Mandel, who did a five-year stint in the army beginning when he was 24, was far from liberal before he left his Nikolsburg community. In fact, his decision to enlist was, he says, a direct result of listening to right-wing talk radio in his car, beginning when he was 18 and newly married.
“I spent six years soaking in that bathtub of ignorance and hatred,” Mandel said, referring to the years just prior to his army enlistment. “I truly believed in the cause, that it was my patriotic duty because Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh said so.”
After joining up and being deployed overseas, however, Mandel realized that “it’s not so simple,” and he is now “against military intervention” in most circumstances; it’s a view he sees echoed in Sanders’ public speeches and voting record. Also, like Sanders, Mandel believes that health care should be a universal right, “just like dialing 911 when you have an emergency. They don’t charge you for that.”
Like Mandel, Mohadeb was very conservative growing up, exposed only to “very right wing, conservative talk shows and newspapers.” She said she was “still registered as a Republican until I heard of Bernie Sanders and made sure to switch my party affiliation so that I can vote for him.”
Echoing what many in her age group seem to feel, Mohadeb also thinks Sanders “does not seem to be in politics for the money or the power. His campaign is funded by everyday Americans like me.”
An oddity, perhaps, is that Sanders’ Jewishness, or even his Brooklyn roots, do not seem to be a key to his appeal among these OTDers. For example, Mordy Karczag, a 30-year-old web developer who lives in Ditmas Park and left his Borough Park Lubavitch community seven years ago, cites Sanders’ universalism as a plus. He says that his support is directly related to Sanders’ humanist values — the same kind of values Karczag says he developed only “once I shed everything I had from the past. If I would have kept the past I would have been a Trump supporter,” he added.
“When I was religious that’s what I gravitated towards, xenophobia and all that stuff.”
On the Sanders-as-humanist front, one ex-chasid even went as far as to create a Wikipedia entry for Sanders in Yiddish, hoping to convince members of his former community — many of whom claim to be supporting Donald Trump — to give Sanders a look. Not because Sanders is Jewish, but because he has a worldview that is actually consistent with the chasidic emphasis on mutual aid and its reliance on the government safety net.
For Esther Mohadeb, when it comes time to cast a vote, it is Sanders’ view that the country needs to be taken back from the special interests and the wealthy that is most compelling.
“I’m planning to vote for him,” she said, “because I believe he’s our only chance to reclaim what’s rightfully ours. Before we work on any issues in the government, it needs to be representative of everyday Americans.”