Windham – A young man who does not shake hands with women was recently elected to the state Legislature, and the support of several members of the Salem Women's Club was instrumental in his victory at the polls.
"My faith out of respect for women does not allow contact between unrelated men and women," said Rep. Jason Bedrick, 23, R-Windham. He said he explains this on a daily basis to female colleagues who reach out their hands to him.
Usually, that's the end of the conversation, he says, but sometimes, when he senses the woman isn't convinced, he adds: "If every man in the world were to keep his hands to himself, would it be a better world for women or a worse world for women?"
Bedrick is the first Orthodox Jew to be elected in New Hampshire, a state that is home to fewer than 10 Orthodox Jewish families and where Jewish people account for 1 percent of the population.
Orthodox Jews strictly observe the Sabbath, refraining from all work from Friday evening to Saturday evening, and keep Jewish dietary laws. Orthodox men also will not touch a woman's hand unless the woman is a family member, considering the act of touch between opposite sexes as something holy.
Black-bearded, Bedrick never takes off his yarmulke and usually politely declines whenever a fellow legislator asks him whether he'd like to grab a bite to eat, since most New Hampshire restaurants do not carry kosher food.
Taking oaths is also forbidden. As a result, during Wednesday's swearing-in ceremony in Concord, Bedrick will substitute the words "I affirm" for "I swear."
Almost 4,500 Windham and Salem voters put their support behind Bedrick on election day, even though he missed several campaign events because they took place during the Sabbath. In the end, every ballot counted because he beat his opponent by six votes after a recount. He said he believes the support he received from the Salem Women's Club really made a difference.
Barbara Elliot, co-president of the club, and several of her female friends voted for Bedrick after he wrote them an e-mail explaining why he does not shake hands with women.
"After they read this, my girlfriends understood it was not because he did not like women. It was because of his religion. They changed their mind and they voted for him," Elliot said, adding she would be proud to have Bedrick as a son. "I definitely got him his five votes there."
Elliot said she voted for Bedrick because he is well-educated and espouses conservative values.
In fact, all 13 Windham and Salem seats in the House of Representatives will be filled by Republicans as a result of last month's election. Bedrick came in last among Republican candidates, but still did better than any Democrat in the district.
Bedrick said he does not plan to focus on any specifically Jewish issues at the state level because his constituency is not Jewish. Instead, he will concentrate on preserving "the New Hampshire advantage," including the absence of sales and income tax. He is also in favor of school vouchers.
"If there was a school-choice program, more private schools that cater to different interests would open," he said.
However, Bedrick does not represent the opinions of all Jewish leaders in the state, many of whom are Democrats.
"His opinions on school vouchers are divergent from the mainstream Jewish perspective," said Adam Solender, executive director of the Jewish Federation of New Hampshire.
Solender added that although Bedrick is the first Orthodox Jew to be elected, many Reform and Conservative Jewish senators and representatives -- both Democrats and Republicans -- have held, and currently hold, office in the state.
Another Jewish politician from New Hampshire -- U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes, a Democrat from Concord -- was elected last month. The last time New Hampshire voters chose a Jewish person to represent them in Washington was more than a decade ago. Republican Sen. Warren B. Rudman served from 1980 to 1993.
Twenty-three-year-old Chabadnik Jason Bedrick has recently made history as the first Orthodox Jew to be elected to the New Hampshire state legislature.
An interesting tidbit in the story is that Bedrick – who won a recount by a mere six votes – received crucial support from the Salem Women’s Club after he wrote to them explaining the religious basis for his habit of not shaking women’s hands.
New Hampshire is home to fewer than 10 Orthodox Jewish families and has a population that is about one percent Jewish, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader. Bedrick is a gabbi at the Wellesley Weston Chabad, in Wellesley Hills, Mass.