January 19th is one of the most important contests in the Democratic and Republican quests for their parties’ nomination for the presidency. It is also Shabbat.
This year, the Nevada Democratic and Republican parties have decided to hold their primary caucuses on a Saturday, with citizens required to report by 11:30 and 9:00 AM respectively, right during morning religious services. When I called the political parties in Nevada to inquire as to whether or not there were measures being taken to help accommodate those observant Jews who wished to participate in the caucuses, I received mixed results. A young Jewish woman at the Nevada Democratic Party told me that they had tried to put caucus-sites near religious neighborhoods and synagogues so that people could walk; precinct captains would be educated about the need to write down information on behalf of observant Jews instead of asking them to sign-in and write themselves. A gentleman at the Nevada Republican Party told me that the party was not even aware of the problem, but promised to make an effort to educate precinct captains on the issue. Neither had an adequate answer as to why the caucuses had to take place on a Shabbat morning.
Nevada has one of the fastest growing Jewish populations in the country, and its 65,000-80,000 Jewish community members are expected to have a disproportionate impact on the results. I do not know how many of these Jews are observant enough to be effectively barred from participating in the caucus. I do not know how many of these Jews will be pushed into the uncomfortable position of choosing between attending synagogue and participating in a cherished American civic tradition. I DO know that it is highly unlikely that the state's political parties would choose to hold these caucuses on a Sunday morning during church services.
Because of the need to caucus during a pre-designated and inflexible time, this form of primary contest inevitably will leave out large swaths of potential voters. Individuals who cannot flex their work schedules or find childcare are often disenfranchised. Because caucusing requires voters to present themselves in-person, members of the armed services or other Americans serving their country abroad are not able to participate in choosing the delegates from their states.
However, there are two elements of Nevada’s political parties’ decision to hold the caucus on Shabbat that make it especially disturbing: the fact that it is entirely avoidable (the caucuses could have easily been held on a weeknight or even after Shabbat ended), and the fact that it categorically excludes an entire group of people based on their religious identity.
This is especially ironic in a year where candidates in both parties have touted their religious credentials and spoken openly about the importance of their own faith as well as respecting people of faith.
Last night’s documentary, “The Jewish Americans” told the story of how American Jews struggled to assimilate while still maintaining a sense of identity. On January 19th, Nevada's observant Jews will be asked to make a false choice between practicing their Judaism and participating in a defining American moment. To all Americans, not just American Jews, this should be seen as a disappointment.