March 30, 2000
Some folks say New Mexico is the face of America’s future. A barren moonscape of rocky peaks and desert mesas, it’s a study in contrasts, a high-tech haven amid some of the nation’s worst poverty. It’s home to the Los Alamos nuclear labs and the ancient Acoma pueblo, America’s oldest continuous human settlement. It’s where the eternal meets the unexpected.
That’s never been truer than it is this spring. Democrats in Albuquerque, the state’s largest city, are angling to capture the local congressional seat for the first time in decades. The primary race is becoming a nasty, four-way brawl. It’s also becoming, in a mysterious way, a vision of American Jewry’s future.
The front-runner is former U.S. Attorney John Kelly, who entered the race in January. Before that, some Democrats joked that they didn’t even need a primary. “We could have just spun the dreidel to choose the nominee,” says local attorney John Wertheim. His point was that the other contenders — former city councilor Sam Bregman, former state legislator Bob Perls, Wertheim himself — are all Jewish.
It’s not unusual for American Jews to play an outsize role in politics. But Albuquerque’s three-fourths-Jewish House race goes beyond outsize. New Mexico has only about 12,000 Jews, less than 1 percent of the state’s 1.7 million population. Something else is going on.
For some Jews, it’s simply doing what’s right. “We have a tradition of mitzvah,” says Bob Perls, the only unaffiliated Jew in the race. “We were raised to step out and be counted, to stop injustice wherever we can.”
That draws a harrumph from organized Jews. “People who are interested in politics go into politics,” says Cantor Joshua Pearlman of Conservative Congregation B’nai Israel. “I don’t know that it’s anything more than that.”
But it is something more. It’s part of a pattern.
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