By COLlive reporter
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who made history this week as the first Jew to win a U.S. presidential primary, isn’t one to openly discuss his Jewish faith and heritage.
Born in Brooklyn to a Polish Jewish family whose many relatives perished in the Nazi Holocaust, Sanders attended Hebrew school in his youth and went to Israel with his first Jewish wife to volunteer in a kibbutz.
“I’m proud to be Jewish,” Sanders once said at a breakfast event in Washington, DC. He then added that he was “not particularly religious.”
But Sanders has a political adviser who subscribes to authentic Judaism: Richard Sugarman.
A bearded Orthodox Jew, Sugarman is a Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Vermont and a regular congregant at Chabad of Vermont on S Williams Street in Burlington.
Sugarman and Sanders were roommates in the ’70s and remained close friends ever since. It was Sugarman who convinced Sanders to run for mayor of Burlington in 1981, a decision that launched his long and storied political career, a Vermont paper reported.
JTA noted that Sugarman once roomed with Joe Lieberman at Yale, making the professor perhaps “the only person to have lived with both serious Jewish contenders for the U.S. presidency.”
According to Vermont publication Seven Days, Sugarman is an unapologetic Zionist who is left of center on every issue “except Israel.” Sanders, on the other hand, cited the J Street lobby and the Arab American Institute as Mideast advisers.
PARTYING AT CHABAD
Sanders won re-election in 1983, and then again in 1985, each time by growing margins. Professor Sugarman helped Sanders celebrate his 1985 reelection by bringing him to Chabad’s Purim party where he joined in the holiday celebration, Chabad.org wrote.
Mayor Sanders was honored with inaugurating Chabad’s first-ever public Menorah at Burlington’s City Hall, built in 1983 by Shluchim Rabbi Yitzchak and Zeesy Raskin.
But when opposition grew to placing a Menorah on public space, Sanders defied pressure from political peers and directed his administration to defend Chabad in court.
The early and strong support from the Sanders administration played a significant role in the now widespread phenomenon of public Chanukah Menorah celebrations countrywide, Chabad.org says.
“When Bernie and I discussed the menorah issue, it was a religious freedom case,” Sugerman recalls. “We discussed the Rebbe’s opinion. It resonated with him. It wasn’t about fighting other holidays; it was about making a religious freedom argument.”
WATCHING THE REBBE ON TV
Bernie Sanders was one of those who enjoyed watching the Rebbe on cable television, the website reported. Sugarman said Sanders was taken by the Rebbe’s views on education, as “one of “the Nation’s top priorities.”
“Sanders appreciated the fact that the day honoring the Rebbe’s birthday was designated as ‘Education Day,’ and moved that a Chassidic leader like the Rebbe concerned himself ‘not only with the spiritual condition of humanity, but their material condition as well’,” Sugerman said.
After proclaiming the Rebbe’s birthday as “Education Day” in Burlington, the Rebbe wrote to him:
“I sincerely appreciate your thoughtfulness in designating this Education Day in honor of my birthday.
“I trust that your action will stimulate greater awareness of the vital importance of education, not only among all your worthy citizens, but also in the State of Vermont.
“With prayerful wishes for success in your important and responsible position, for the prosperity for all your citizens, both materially and spiritually.”
When the Rebbe’s letter arrived at the Mayor’s Office in City Hall, Sanders called Sugarman, his close friend and fellow chossid.
“I got a letter you might be interested in seeing,” Sanders told him.
Sugerman immediately went over and read the precious letter. He then asked if he can keep the original letter from the Rebbe.
“No, this letter is for me,” Sanders replied. “I want to keep it.”