Caucus deals Shabbat blow to Vegas rabbi

After 10 years at Temple Beth Sholom, Mexican-born Goodman wanted "to vote and have my voice be heard."

mexican rabbi 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
mexican rabbi 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The chance to participate in the 2008 presidential election, whose outcome could affect crucial US policies toward both Iran and Israel, convinced Felipe Goodman to become an American citizen. After 10 years in Las Vegas as a rabbi at the Conservative Temple Beth Sholom, the Mexican-born Goodman wanted "to vote and have my voice be heard." He and his wife rushed through their citizenship application to be finished in time to register to vote. And then he found out that two major American promises - freedom of religion and electoral democracy - had collided in his state and that he would have to choose between them. The Nevada caucuses to determine the presidential nominee for Democrats and Republicans had been scheduled for January 19, this Saturday. "It's heartbreaking," said Goodman, who will spend the morning praying rather than caucusing. He's not alone in his frustration. Nevada's largest city, Las Vegas, has, according to some estimates, the country's fastest-growing Jewish community, which now numbers between 60,000 and 80,000. "I feel like the Jews are being ignored," said Orthodox Rabbi Yaakov Wasser, "like we don't count, like our voices don't need to be heard." He described many of the 60-plus families who comprise his congregation as "extremely upset." Though the vast majority of Las Vegas Jews don't observe the Sabbath, which means they could caucus if they so choose, several members of the Jewish community said that was beside the point. Many attend synagogue on Saturday mornings even if they drive to get there, and others don't like the perceived disrespect to the concerns of their community. At Midbar Kodesh, another Conservative congregation, an unusually high turnout is expected on Saturday morning - perhaps 350 people - because a bar mitzva is being celebrated. Kevin Spoor, Midbar Kodesh's administrative director, said he was discouraged by not being able to caucus. "If it had been a weekday or a Sunday, I would have been there in a heartbeat," he said. "They say they want everyone to come out and make their voice be heard, and then they hold it at a time that isn't suitable for the whole community." The Nevada State Democratic Party defended the timing of the caucus as being guided by an effort to ensure the widest possible turnout. "In Las Vegas, every day is a workday. Every day is also going to have some significance. So Saturday was the day when the least number of people went to work, so we could encourage participation," said party spokesman Jamal Simmons. He added that weeknights - when the caucus had traditionally been held - were particularly difficult for the city's many hospitality workers and entertainers. Unlike primaries, where voters can cast their ballots at stations throughout the day or submit absentee ballots - which spares Jews voting in Saturday's South Carolina primary any dilemma - caucus-goers must be physically present at a specific time, to back candidates as a group. In addition to allowing more workers to participate, Saturday morning was chosen because of the East Coast media cycle, Simmons said, since the party wanted to be able to announce the results before the deadlines of major news organizations there. "We are disappointed if there are people who won't be able to participate because of their religious duties," Simmons said, adding that the party had tried to make accommodations for Jews. Caucus captains were trained on the needs of observant Jews who might show up, including finding ways so that they wouldn't need to sign their name to vote or to hold signs to indicate their preference. In addition, the number of caucus stations mushroomed from 17 in 2004 to 520 this year, which Simmons said would allow most Nevada residents to walk to a station if necessary. Steve Wark, the communications director for the Nevada Republican caucus, also expressed regret that certain voters would be excluded from the process, pointing out that Seventh-Day Adventists and residents who couldn't be in town - including overseas servicemen - would also not be able to participate. He noted, though, that caucuses were party events rather than statewide public contests, so they were not governed by the same laws of access as official elections. Wark said the Republicans felt obliged to hold their caucus on the same date as the Democrats once the latter chose January 19 for the process, for efficiency and cost-saving reasons, as well as to maximize media attention. "It's unfortunate that people observant in their faiths may not feel they can participate," he said. While certain groups might not show up, caucus turnout is supposed to hit record levels. The presidential races in both parties are wide open, with five different candidates having won contests to date. Nevada, a western state heavily reliant on tourism and boasting a large Hispanic population, could well change the dynamic of the race again. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are looking to shore up victories in New Hampshire and Iowa, respectively, while former senator John Edwards is looking for his first win. On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain and former governors Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee all want to show that they have broad appeal as they compete for votes Saturday in both Nevada and South Carolina's Republican primary. (South Carolina Democrats vote on January 26, next Saturday.) In the past, Nevada caucused well after the nominee had been established by other states' votes. "They were kind of non-events. By moving up the date," Wark said, "it made Nevada more relevant than in previous years." That significance was something Goodman was hoping to take advantage of by caucusing. When he found out a few months ago that he wouldn't be able to participate, he spoke to Democratic Nevada Congresswoman Shelley Berkley, who is herself Jewish. Neither Berkley nor the Las Vegas Jewish Federation returned phone calls from The Jerusalem Post. Though Berkley informed Goodman that it was too late for anything to be done about the date this year, she told him that she would do everything possible to make sure the situation didn't repeat itself in the future. Goodman stressed that he intended to vote on Election Day in November despite his frustrating experience with the caucuses. "I still love this country," he said. "We just need to make sure our voices are heard."