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August 29, 2014

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Election 2008:

Temple becomes tiny battleground

Congregants get up-close view as campaigns court Jewish vote

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Leila Navidi

Bruce Kesselman, executive director of Temple Beth Sholom, photographs Sen. Joe Lieberman for temple records as Lieberman stumps for John McCain last month in Summerlin. High-level surrogates for both presidential campaigns in recent months have courted the congregation, the area’s oldest and perhaps most influential.

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Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman greets congregants last month at Temple Beth Sholom. Notable Las Vegans including U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, longtime developer Irwin Molasky and boxing promoter Bob Arum attend the synagogue.

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For most people, presidential campaigns are waged from afar. Voters watch televised debates, read newspapers, surf the net. Rarely do they have a chance to hear from the campaigns in person.

The opposite is true this year for members of Las Vegas’ oldest synagogue. The 700 families who belong to Temple Beth Sholom in Summerlin are witnessing the election firsthand. High-level surrogates for both presidential candidates have come to Las Vegas specifically to address the closely divided congregation.

This rare level of attention demonstrates that Beth Sholom, which is deep in Las Vegas luminaries, is vital to the two campaigns as they search for an advantage in this battleground state.

For members of the congregation, it has been a chance to hear for themselves about the security of Israel and other Middle East issues.

It began Sept. 15, when Sen. Joe Lieberman spoke to the congregation in support of Sen. John McCain.

The Arizona senator’s national campaign had decided to have Lieberman speak in Las Vegas, but didn’t know exactly where to send him, said Sandy Mallin, a past president of Beth Sholom and the McCain campaign’s Jewish coalition chairwoman for Nevada. The campaign settled on Beth Sholom, in part because of its location in Summerlin, with its high concentration of Jews.

The location also worked because of Beth Sholom’s historical importance to the community, Mallin said.

At the event, Lieberman, an orthodox Jew and 2000 Democratic vice presidential running mate to Al Gore, emphasized to an enthusiastic crowd of more than 500 McCain’s steadfast support for Israel.

Yet many in the congregation took Rabbi Felipe Goodman to task for bringing partisan politics onto the pulpit. Some thought no politician should’ve been brought in at all, while others objected to what they viewed as the synagogue’s de facto endorsement of McCain.

Goodman, who has presided as the synagogue’s top rabbi for the past decade, said he strongly disagreed with the first argument, but felt sympathy with the second.

For integrity’s sake, Goodman said — and because half of his congregants are supporters of Sen. Barack Obama — “we had to make sure somebody spoke on behalf of Obama.”

Even before Lieberman came, Goodman conferred with Nevada Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, a long-standing Beth Sholom congregant, regarding a potential speaker on Obama’s behalf.

The Obama campaign quickly offered two choices: New York Sen. Charles Schumer and Dennis Ross, a veteran diplomat who served as President Clinton’s special Middle East coordinator.

Obama has had more to overcome than other Democratic presidential candidates in his efforts to woo Jewish voters. His record on Middle Eastern issues in the Senate is relatively thin given his short time there. And then there have been the false, Internet-fueled rumors that Obama is secretly a Muslim who was schooled in a radical, anti-Western madrassa in Indonesia.

Goodman chose Ross, who spoke to the congregation on Oct. 4.

Goodman said Ross’ speech was impressive. But the star, according to some who were there, was another Obama supporter, Berkley.

“It’s been my temple since I was 12 years old,” Berkley said. “They watched me grow up, and they know how important Israel is to me.”

Berkley said she’s sat with Obama several times to gauge him — and she’s come away impressed, not just with his thoughts on the Middle East. “I felt it was important to share this with my congregation,” she said.

More recently, Beth Sholom held its regularly scheduled candidates night, which featured GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch on behalf of McCain and former Democratic Rep. Mel Levine speaking for Obama.

Like Florida, Nevada has become a first-tier battleground state — vital to the electoral map designs of both campaigns. Also, the Jewish community here, as in the Sunshine State, has become a potentially pivotal voting bloc, relatively small in number but highly politically active and less reliably Democratic than it used to be.

“Nevada seems to be undecided in the presidential race this year, which means that Nevada matters and the Jewish vote here matters,” said Goodman.

Beth Sholom is an ideal place to woo Jewish voters. It’s one of the two largest synagogues in Southern Nevada, along with Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson. And Beth Sholom is home to several influential Southern Nevadans — Berkley, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, longtime developer Irwin Molasky and boxing promoter Bob Arum, to name a few.

Founded in 1946, the Conservative synagogue (as in denomination, not political ideology) was the only place in town for Jews to worship for years. The temple has moved twice, most recently to the corner of Town Center Drive and Havenwood Lane.

Political opposites have been members over the years, as have adversaries of a more life or death nature. According to published accounts, local Mafia figures such as Moe Dalitz were members of Beth Sholom when Joe Yablonsky, the special agent in charge of the Las Vegas FBI field office, also joined.

The struggle some Beth Sholom congregants may be feeling regarding whom to vote for has been reflected in the inner turmoil their rabbi said he has experienced.

Goodman, a Mexican native who became a U.S. citizen last year, on Monday was set to vote in his first American presidential contest. He declined to say publicly whom he planned to vote for, but acknowledged that it’s been a difficult decision.

“I’ve gone back and forth 10 times on this,” Goodman said. “I feel torn both ways.”

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