Nevada’s Sabbath-Keepers To Miss Saturday’s Caucus

By Rebecca Spence

Published January 16, 2008, issue of January 18, 2008.
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Los Angeles - With presidential candidates vying for every last caucus vote in Nevada, contenders from both parties can almost certainly write off one entire constituency: the state’s Orthodox Jews.

They also can forgo a smattering of Conservative Jews and, as long as we’re counting, the state’s Seventh-day Adventists, too.

The scheduling of the Nevada caucuses — both Democratic and Republican — on Saturday, January 19, in the late-morning hours means that both Jews and Seventh-day Adventists who observe the Sabbath on Saturdays will be unable to participate in what is shaping up to be a pivotal contest. While no Jewish organizations cried “foul” until recent weeks — and by then it was too late to change the impending caucus time — they are raising last-minute vocal opposition.

“The issue is the number of people who have to decide whether to participate in the democratic process or participate in their religious observance,” said Hadar Susskind, Washington director for an umbrella organization of national Jewish groups, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “They shouldn’t be forced to do that.”

While previous election years, including 2004, saw Nevada primaries held on a Saturday, it wasn’t until the current caucus that religious groups raised eyebrows. In past cycles, Nevada’s placement as one of the last presidential primary states rendered its outcome unimportant, but with Nevada this year holding the coveted third spot in the lineup of Democratic contests, a new spotlight is being trained on the Silver State. And with the leading Democratic candidates locked in a neck-and-neck three-way race there — and no clear front-runner having emerged from Iowa and New Hampshire — a few thousand votes could make or break the election result, say opponents of the Saturday morning timeslot.

“This isn’t an academic exercise of a few thousand religious people being marginalized from the political process,” said James Standish, the Washington-based director of legislative affairs for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, World Headquarters. In this case, Standish said, “the actual outcome of the vote might be different.”

The Seventh-day Adventist Church, a Protestant denomination sometimes associated with evangelicals, counts 5,000 adherents in Nevada. While estimates of the state’s number of Jews range from some 68,000 to 80,000 — with 67,500 living in Las Vegas alone, according to a recent demographic study commissioned by the city’s local Jewish federation — the vast majority of them are secular. In fact, the federation’s study, conducted by University of Miami researcher Ira Sheskin and released in early 2007, found that Las Vegas has the lowest measure of Jewish engagement when compared with 40 other American cities. Only 14% of Jews belong to a synagogue, according to Sheskin’s findings.

Rabbi Shea Harlig, regional director of Chabad of Southern Nevada, estimated that Nevada is home to some 200 Orthodox families, and to nearly 1,500 families affiliated with Conservative synagogues. The state counts eight Orthodox congregations in total, with seven in Las Vegas and one further north, in Reno.

The acting executive director of the Las Vegas Jewish federation, Alise Kermisch, did not return a phone call seeking comment on the caucus. Both Conservative and Orthodox Nevada rabbis have spoken out in press accounts against the caucus timing, but none has actually organized opposition.

Many of those angered by the Nevada caucus timeslot said that they had no problem with the South Carolina Republican primary, also set for January 19, since Sabbath-observant voters could submit absentee ballots or go to the polls after sundown. The caucus system, however, requires voters to physically attend.

Two of Nevada’s most prominent elected officials are Jews: Rep. Shelley Berkley, a chair of the Democratic caucus, and Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, a former mob lawyer.

Harlig said that he had spoken with Berkley about the fracas. According to the Chabad rabbi, the five-term congresswoman said that she had called the state’s Democratic Party leadership and received assurances that it wouldn’t happen again. Berkley could not be reached for comment.

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