FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. — Bernie Sanders' historic first win by a Jewish candidate in a presidential primary in New Hampshire brought to mind an earlier political milestone for local Jewish leaders.
In 2000, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore tapped Stamford native and then-U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman to be his running mate. Although they didn’t win, Gore’s announcement was, in some ways, more of a significant moment for Jewish leaders.
“I think that Senator Lieberman’s choice had more of an impact because it was the first time that someone [Jewish] was on the national ticket — not just a candidate but on the ticket,” said James Cohen, CEO of the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien.
Other barriers have been broken since then: Voters elected Barack Obama, its first black president, in 2008. And Hillary Clinton would be the nation’s first female president if she’s elected this election cycle.
Aside from the added diversity in contemporary politics, religious identity could make Lieberman’s run more significant.
Professor Nehama Aschkenasy, director of the Center of Judaic and Middle Eastern Studies at UConn-Stamford, said Lieberman was outwardly religious, unlike Sanders. In his victory speech Tuesday night in New Hampshire, Sanders said his father came from Poland, but he did not mention his Jewish religion.
Aschkenasy said she “didn’t fault him” for not mentioning his upbringing, saying Sanders represents a section of Americans who are Jews by birth and aren’t religious.
So the fact that Lieberman , whose Jewish religion was a large part of his identity, could have became vice president “is much more of a historic moment in my opinion,” Aschkenasy said.
Even so, Cohen said Tuesday’s primary sends a positive message about the American people.
“I was particularly pleased that it didn’t matter that much to the average voter what his religion was,” Cohen said. “I think it shows how far the Jewish community has come in being an integrated piece of the American fabric.”
And Cohen noted that children of two other presidential contenders — Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — have both married Jewish spouses. Chelsea Clinton is married to a Jewish husband as is Ivanka Trump, who also converted to Judaism.
“It’s an absolute non-issue,” Cohen said of inter-faith marriages in contemporary culture. “And I think that this generation’s grandparents would be very proud of that fact.”
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