'We as Jews have an obligation to stand up for ourselves'

This Jewish Gen-Zer wants to be the next progressive pro-Israel US congressman

Joe Vogel, who identifies as Jewish, LGBTQ and Latino, is notable on the national scene, even aside from his young age, while his coreligionists laud his courageous stance on Israel

Maryland State Del. Joe Vogel, a Jewish gay Latino Democrat, campaigns with State Sen. Cheryl Kagan in Gaithersburg, Maryland, April 14, 2024. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images/JTA)
Maryland State Del. Joe Vogel, a Jewish gay Latino Democrat, campaigns with State Sen. Cheryl Kagan in Gaithersburg, Maryland, April 14, 2024. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images/JTA)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — At least twice while campaigning in the small towns of the western stretch of Maryland’s 6th District, Joe Vogel headed to Shabbat services.

Synagogues in Cumberland and Frederick were only too happy to accommodate when his campaign called ahead and said the Jewish candidate wanted to stop by on a Saturday morning. In fact, the Frederick congregation had a favor to ask of the young elected official: Could he lift up a Torah scroll?

“It’s a slightly older congregation and they needed someone that could do the hagbah,” recalled Vogel, 27, referring to the delicate-yet-daunting act of lifting the Torah scroll by its poles and displaying it to the congregation. “I had not done that since my bar mitzvah. I was a little nervous to drop the Torah in front of, you know, a few dozen folks.”

Under Jewish tradition, dropping the Torah could require fasting. For Vogel, who won his seat in the state house in 2022 at age 25, making him the youngest delegate ever elected, an accident could cost votes, too. But the Jewish day school graduate pulled the feat off, continuing his campaign without incident.

That was fortunate, because even a small margin could make a difference in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, where a crowded pack of Democrats are vying on Tuesday’s primary for the seat being vacated by Rep. David Trone, who is running for the US Senate.

If successful in the primary and then again in November, Vogel would become the second-youngest member of Congress, after Florida’s Maxwell Frost, a progressive Democrat who was born less than two weeks after him in January 1997.

Polls ahead of Tuesday’s primary show that Vogel is a frontrunner, alongside April McClain Delaney, a former senior Commerce Department official who is the wife of John Delaney, Trone’s predecessor.

The Democratic establishment backs Delaney in the purplish 6th District, where they fear Vogel’s progressive politics may turn off rural voters. But Vogel has garnered some high-profile endorsements, including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, for whom he once worked, as well as some unions, including a major teachers union. J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East lobby, has designated him as primary approved.

Illustrative: New Jersey Senator Cory Booker speaks during the third Democratic presidential primary debate at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas, on September 12, 2019. (Robyn Beck/AFP)

Vogel’s biography — born in Uruguay, he identifies as Jewish, LGBTQ and Latino — makes him notable on the national scene beyond his age. But his campaigning in the 6th District has been about local issues. When he knocks on doors, he told The Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Monday, people want to know about jobs, health and the environment.

“The mayor of Boonsboro, for example, talked to us about the challenges they face in their water reservoir and my commitment as a member of Congress to addressing those challenges,” he said. “And we’re talking about what I’ve worked on in the legislature, which was mental health, responding to the fentanyl overdose epidemic, creating jobs in new industries. All of those priorities resonate with folks all over this district.”

His identity helps at times, too. “I think there are Jewish voters here in Gaithersburg who are really excited about the message of our campaign and what my leadership offers,” he said of one of the DC bedroom communities he represents in the state House.

Vogel attended the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and was active in BBYO, the international nondenominational Jewish youth movement, which he said spurred his political ambitions.

“I think about my Jewish faith and I think about the values of tikkun olam,” he said, referring to the Jewish imperative to repair the world that can be a watchword for progressives, “but even beyond that, this idea that we have an obligation to stand up for ourselves, I think about right now more than ever, as we see a surge in antisemitism.”

Congressman Ritchie Torres, Jerusalem, April 2, 2024. (Times of Israel)

He casts himself as a progressive but with pro-Israel cred, citing New York Rep. Ritchie Torres and Florida Rep. Jared Moskowitz as role models. Both are outspoken progressives on domestic issues and also are unstinting defenders of Israel, an increasingly rare combination as the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has become highly critical of Israel.

Vogel said the need to defend Israel was made especially acute by the war Hamas launched when it attacked Israel on October 7, butchering some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 252 to the Gaza Strip.

“For me, my support for Israel, it’s not political, it’s not a policy issue, it’s personal,” he said. ”I have family there. My youngest cousin just enrolled in the IDF. The last few months have been extremely challenging. And I think that now more than ever, we need young voices that are willing to stand up for Israel and stand up for the Jewish community.”

On the most contentious Israel issue of the day — United States President Joe Biden’s withholding of bombs to Israel as it embarks on a military operation in Rafah, a city on the Gaza-Egypt border — Vogel acknowledged ambivalence.

“I have concerns, as especially as we see the rise in threats from Iran that we saw in the last several weeks, that we are jeopardizing Israel’s security by making decisions or making declarations,” he said. “But, you know, ultimately, I trust the president. I trust the president and I trust his national security team.”

Illustrative: Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks with artillery forces on the Gaza border, across from Rafah, May 7, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Whatever happens Tuesday, a takeaway for Vogel, who grew up in a large and influential Jewish community in suburban DC, will be the joys of small-town Jewish life. He recalled his Shabbat in Cumberland last December, and said he’s kept in touch — maintaining an attention to detail befitting a politician whose success will depend on local relationships.

“I understand that they’re hiring a new rabbi now, which is very exciting for the Cumberland community,” he said.

Recent polls suggest that Delaney may have taken the lead in the days before the primary. But Vogel, who said he knocked on 3,000 doors over the weekend, says he believes he has the momentum.

“What you’ll see tomorrow is a large amount of support for us in parts of the district that folks thought we would never really be able to gain traction,” he said. “And because we made a concerted effort, because we made an intentional effort to show up and gain support there.”

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