It’s no secret that Bernie Sanders has been a bit reluctant to explicitly discuss his Jewish identity during his presidential campaign.
So it jumped out at us when University of Chicago student Chelsea Fine got him to open up a bit on Thursday night at a nationally televised town hall session on MSNBC.
To the surprise of some Bernie-watchers, the Vermont senator skipped the platitudes and offered up perhaps his most extended public reflection to date on his Jewishness.
So who is Chelsea Fine and how did she get picked to ask her question? More importantly, what did the over-achieving fourth-year student think of his answer? And most importantly of all, who will she be voting for come Election Day?
The Forward’s Aaron Steinberg-Madow caught up with Fine to find out the story behind the question that the Jewish media has wanted to ask Sanders for months.
Aaron Steinberg-Madow: Could you please tell me about your Jewish background and identity, including any involvement in campus groups? In addition, could you tell me where you grew up?
Chelsea Fine: My family has moved around quite a bit, but I have spent most of my life in Washington, DC. Growing up, I attended Hebrew school twice a week and continued through my Bat Mitzvah in 2007. When I finished middle school the next year, though, academics started to take up more of my time, and I could no longer participate in my congregation’s programming for students. Then, after I received my acceptance to the University of Chicago, I learned that Hillel was leading a Birthright trip to Israel. I applied and was the only incoming first-year on the trip, but it was a great experience, and I really enjoyed having older friends on campus.
AS-M: What led you to ask Senator Sanders your question? How did you come up with the question?
CF: I did not write the question by myself—my friend, Asya Akca, and I wrote it together. We were interested in asking this question because identity politics has become important in the United States and this election contains many firsts. As University of Chicago Institute of Politics Director David Axelrod commented in a Tweet: “[It is] kind of remarkable how little we note that four of the remaining major contenders for presidency are a woman, a Jew and two Cuban-Americans.” Although Secretary Clinton has received a lot of attention as the country’s first female frontrunner for president, our question was inspired by the fact that very few people are talking about how Senator Sanders might become the first Jewish president.
On the campaign trail, he’s wanted to focus on the issues more than himself, which we think is admirable. But one’s identity has the power to shape one’s view of the world, so we thought it was an important question to ask a presidential candidate. Unfortunately, the producers of the show would only let one of us step up to the microphone, so we decided that since I am Jewish and Asya is not, I would ask the question.
AS-M: Were you nervous about asking the question?
CF: Yes, I was incredibly nervous. The Institute of Politics invites many high-profile speakers to campus, so we as students are lucky to get to ask a lot of questions of influential and powerful people. But I’ve never been on live national television before, and I’ve never spoken to a presidential candidate before, so this was a bit different.
AS-M: What did you think about Senator Sanders’ response?
CF: When we asked the question, we were hoping the Senator would address his identity and how it might influence his presidency. Rather, he talked more about his connection to his Jewish heritage by referencing the Holocaust, which was an interesting approach to our question. He concluded by saying “I’m very proud of my heritage.” On the campaign trail, he has chosen to focus more on the issues facing our country, so it was nice to hear a more personal response from him. Ultimately, though, we hope that our question will spark a larger conversation on the topic.
AS-M: Did Senator Sanders’ answer change your opinion in any way about his candidacy?
CF: Chris Matthews asked many hard questions last night, ones that we had been hoping the Senator would address for a long time, and we think Senator Sanders did a really great job. As far as our question is concerned, he gave a clear answer about his relationship with his Jewish heritage without any mention of whether or not his Jewish faith has played a role in his political pursuits. After last night, we hope that in future responses, he will elaborate more on the impact his heritage and Jewish identity might have on his presidency.
AS-M: Have you decided who you will vote for?
CF: I’d rather not answer this question, but I am registered to vote in the District of Columbia and am waiting for my absentee ballot in the mail.