For millenial Orthodox Jews, a presidential debate is a religious obligation

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N,J,), at center, speaks as former housing secretary Julian Castro and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) look on during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Young people filter into a second-story apartment, settling on the sofa and floor for a home cooked meal, snacks and a grotesque amount of alcohol. Some bring additional treats, notebooks, items to return or lend. It looks like any other weekday gathering in a religious community, and for some, this is an event of religious obligation: watching the debate.

Most of the attendees are from the Modern Orthodox Anshe Chesed community in Linden, N.J., but others made the short trip from Lakewood, Brooklyn or Manhattan. They come from families ranging from haredi Orthodox to entirely secular, but they all regard Jewish identity and some form of Jewish practice as integral to their being.

The question the majority of them ask of the Democratic hopefuls who share the stage in Miami is not “is this good for the Jews,” but “will this keep people fed?”

On the first night, most of the discussion rotates around trying to remember the names of lesser known candidates who are, according to some attendees, “just wasting [Elizabeth] Warren’s time.” But when single-payer healthcare is brought up, people become very serious with hollering, cheers and accusations of cowardice leveled against the candidates who will not commit their support. They listen thoughtfully to each statement, but there is strong consensus for increased socialization of medical insurance: they have seen medical catastrophes bankrupt people in their own communities, despite the emphasis on mutual aid in the Jewish world.

Warren is the favorite of the first debate, even for attendees who do not consider themselves to be politically left-wing: “I don’t agree with all of her policy proposals, but I appreciate her commitment to nuance, to research.” Some say that Warren’s insistence that the CDC must study gun violence as a public health issue before anyone can craft policies about it is a tepid non-answer, but her position is quickly defended by several partygoers.

Others say that they appreciate Cory Booker’s charisma, but aren’t sure that he could really hold his own in terms of policy.

The second night is regarded as far more lively and consequential, though both thoughts about healthcare reform and confusion about the presence of certain low-profile candidates are echoed from the first night.

The space between debate segments is filled largely with dark humor and occasional diversions into Yiddish. But members of the group also take the chance to educate each other about how different policies might work: among them sit an economist, a lobbyist active in Albany and an Iranian-born apostate who speaks on human rights issues. Many of the people present did not have civic education growing up, or are unfamiliar with concepts that have been bandied around progressive politics for years, like Universal Basic Income, but the discussions stay positive and productive.

When Andrew Yang brings up a plan for UBI, the group is pensive. Someone mention’s Yang’s earlier admission to being an “intactivist,” someone in favor of banning circumcision, a sensitive idea that understandably gets under the skin of many members of the Jewish community. Even if some of his ideas interest the group, people seem to feel ill-at-ease with his candidacy.

But when Kamala Harris speaks to making sure that working families can put food on the table, support is clear. Likewise, when Peter Buttiegeg mentions that he not only wants to make it more affordable for Americans to go to college, but also more affordable for Americans to not go to college, there is enthusiastic agreement: some members of the group have graduate education, while others don’t have a high school diploma. It’s a sensitive issue for many communities, Orthodox Jews included. A few people in the group have children and are paying tuition to religious day schools, a yearly cost that is equivalent to a university education. Others know that the cultural expectation looms overhead, as soon as they have school-aged children. Everyone knows someone in the community who has decided to not have additional children because of the cost of schooling, which is the biggest financial concern of most Orthodox Jews, with the cost of kosher food not too far behind.

On Buttiegeg, one partygoer says he appreciates that homosexual identity didn’t become a large talking point: he was dignified about all mentions of his marriage, and did not make his candidacy about his romantic life. As the religious community grapples with the visibility and treatment of those who are openly non-heterosexual, people respected that Buttiegeg did not seem to be trying to win any “woke points” with the facts of his personal life.

Identity politics played a large role in reactions, with fine critiques of the quality of Spanish spoken on the first night, heated discussion about de Blasio’s invocation of his children’s Blackness, and Kamala Harris’ utter destruction of Joe Biden on racial ssues.

Ultimately, people seemed most moved by the dignity expressed by certaincandidates: Warren, Harris,
Buttiegeg all emerging as top choices for a ticket.

A few people were committed to a top pick and second pick, but most attendees were still open and hopeful. Even some who had never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate before felt invigorated by some of the choices.

A disproportionately large percentage of the group claim to have voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson in the last presidential election, not necessarily for any of his policies, but for the sake of trying to activate a third-party presence on the national stage. Several admit that if they had been living and voting in swing states, they might have voted differently. None of them are prepared to commit to a Libertarian vote for 2020, just yet.

At the end of the second debate, folks relax and catch up on personal and communal matters. But when people begin to leave, talk falls back to the matter that guided many reactions through both nights: who among the group can afford to host how many people for this Shabbat, and how can we afford to put a few more seats at the table?

No’a L. Bat Miri is a writer, editor and teacher based in Central New Jersey.

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