When A Saturday Caucus Means No Voting For Orthodox Jews
In Kansas, both the Democrats and the Republicans have moved toward Saturday caucuses in hopes of picking up more votes. But when voters in Kansas make their presidential picks tomorrow, some religious minorities will be inadvertently cut out of the political process.
On a Friday afternoon like any other for Victor Bergman and his wife, Susan, they cook Moroccan chicken stew as the smell of fresh-baked challah fills their Overland Park, Kan., home.
"OK, so one of the things that has to be done before the Sabbath starts is to get the food preparation, anything that needs to be cooked, cooked," says Victor, who is one of about 15,000 Jews who live in Johnson County in suburban Kansas City. "Right here in our neighborhood, there are lots of Jewish families, and an overrepresentation of Orthodox Jewish families."
The subdivision he lives in is only a few blocks from the nearby Orthodox synagogue.
"A Sabbath observer in Judaism in the Orthodox tradition is someone who would walk to the synagogue on Saturday and Friday night," says Rabbi Daniel Rockoff of Congregation Beth Israel Abraham Voliner. "Someone who wouldn't write with a pen or use technology or answer phone calls."
Rockoff says a strict interpretation of Jewish law would prevent many members of his congregation from caucusing.
"We wouldn't be able to rip something, to write something, to drive to get to the location where we would have to caucus," he says. "That's why those technicalities become very real for us."
For Margie Robinow, an observant Jew and staunch Republican, that was unacceptable. After she couldn't participate in the 2012 caucus, she called up the Kansas Republican Party.
"They noticed they probably weren't diverse enough and made huge efforts to reach out to people," Robinow says.
Because Kansas Republicans were already using a secret ballot at their caucus, it wasn't hard to add an absentee option for people who couldn't be there in person.
"I got it," says Robinow, "I voted, and I mailed it in."
But the Kansas Democrats do it differently. It's more like what you saw in Iowa: standing in a high school gym, rallying for your preferred candidate. There's no ballot. You have to come in person.
That upsets Mark Levin, the founding rabbi for one of Overland Park's Reform congregations.
"Some people think religious means Orthodox," he says. "I consider myself to be a very religious person."
Levin, who describes his politics as "Bernie Sanders-esque," isn't Sabbath-observant in the traditional sense. He'll drive to synagogue and go out to eat with friends after. But he generally reserves Saturday for reflection and rest.
"I have heard no one say they're feeling discriminated against because they can't attend a caucus," Levin says. "Do I still think that's wrong to do it that way? Yes, I do."
So does Victor Bergman. As his wife continues Sabbath preparations, he says that as a lawyer, he often gets questions about accommodations for the observant.
"If elections were held on Saturdays, and you could only vote in person on Saturdays, I would probably be in court — and I'm sure others would have been there long before me," he says.
But Bergman thinks there's a simple explanation for why more Sabbath-observant Jews aren't upset about the Democratic caucus: Kansas hasn't gone blue in a presidential election in half a century.
Copyright 2016 KCUR 89.3