Obama on Alan Gross: ‘Freedom Is Possible’

President Obama dedicated a large part of his speech at this year’s Hanukkah party to Alan Gross, who was released from Cuban prison after five years as part of the country’s renewal of diplomatic relations with the U.S.:

He’s back where he belongs — in America, with his family, home for Hanukkah. And I can’t think of a better way to mark this holiday, with its message that freedom is possible, than with the historic changes that I announced today in our Cuba policy. These are changes that are rooted in America’s commitment to freedom and democracy for all the Cuban people, including its small but proud Jewish community.

Gross was arrested in 2009 while working to set up Internet access for the Cuban-Jewish community as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Gross’s sister-in-law, Gwen Zuares, thanked Obama personally for her brother-in-law’s release at the party.

B’nai B’rith International said that it “warmly welcomes, and is relieved by the news”:

B’nai B’rith is grateful for the efforts of the Administration and all those who assisted in facilitating the high-level discussions leading to Gross’ release. We are thinking of Gross, his family and his friends

The Republican Jewish Coalition, which called the normalization of relations with Cuba “unwise”, welcomed Gross’s release:

On the first day of Hanukkah, Alan Gross was granted light, freedom, and the long-awaited reunion with his family. The RJC joins the entire Jewish community in celebrating his redemption.

Agudath Israel of America issued a statement on the subject:

The release and return of Alan Gross from Cuban incarceration is truly a modern day Chanukah miracle, and it fills us with deep gratitude to, in the words of the Amidah, “He Who frees captives.” Mr. Gross’ expedited liberation seemed a distant dream, and now it is a dream come true.

We express our heartfelt thanks to President Obama, whose dedicated and determined efforts led to Mr. Gross’ release. And we pray that Mr. Gross will adjust to his return to freedom enveloped in the love and support of his family and friends.

Agudath Israel Salutes Obama’s Unwavering Support of Israel

Letter from Agudath Israel of America to President Barack Obama

Dear Mr. President,

We at Agudath Israel of America and our constituency of Orthodox Jews across the United States, salute your clear and unwavering support of Israel’s security.

Your recent public words confirming our nation’s endorsement of Israel’s right to defend herself, and place responsibility for the current conflict squarely where it belongs, in the lap of Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza, are deeply appreciated.

Thank you also for your leadership and foresight in 2010, when the United States committed considerable special aid to Israel for the expansion of the Iron Dome missile interception system. Today we see how Iron Dome has played so crucial a role in recent days in preventing loss of innocent life and destruction of property.

In a time when some other nations, sadly, seem equivocal regarding terrorism, whether waged by individuals or by state actors like the current government in Gaza, the clarity of vision and resolve you have demonstrated set an example of how principle is more important than politics.

Thank you once again. As always, you are in our thoughts and prayers.


Rabbi David Zwiebel

A Study Break Like No Other

By Hannah Lee

In 1923, Rabbi Meir Shapiro proposed to the First World Congress of the World Agudath Israel in Vienna that Jews around the world bond over a daily study of the books of the Talmud, the code of rabbinic law. The six orders of the Talmud (or Gemarah), known as sedarim, are divided into 60 or 63 tractates, masekhtot. Clocking in over 6,200 pages long, it’s written in Aramaic and quotes from the Hebrew Bible.  Today, August 1, is a grand celebration of the completion of the 12th cycle of study, the Siyum HaShas of Daf Yomi.  It’s being held at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ and approximately 90,000 men, women, and children are expected to attend.

The six local teachers who’ve faithfully lead the daily study sessions year-round are: Rabbi Yechiel Biberfeld of Bala Cynwyd; Rabbi Dov Aaron Brisman of Philadelphia; Rabbi Yonah Gross of Wynnewood; Rabbi Sruli Schwartz of Merion Station; Rabbi Avraham Shmidman of Bala Cynwyd; and Rabbi Mordechai Terbelo of Philadelphia.  Yishar kochachem to these dedicated individuals and to their students for the commitment to sustaining Jewish scholarship!

Note: This list excludes some other local Daf Yomi teachers, such as Rabbi Jonathan Levene of Bala Cynwyd, but this was a siyum organized by the Agudath Israel of America, and I consulted their memorial book,which is a hefty volume 1/2-inch thick.

The Write Stuff: Tips To Help Get Your Letter to the Editor Published

— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

Sometimes — usually after the New York Times deigns to publish a letter of mine on behalf of Agudath Israel of America — I’m asked how one “gets a letter” published in a (rightly or wrongly) respected periodical.

Well, the first step is to become the spokesperson for a national organization.

Just joking. It may help a letter’s chances for publication if it is signed by an organizational representative. But it can also hurt them. In any event, most published letters are from individuals writing as such.

One doesn’t, however, “get a letter” published. All one can do is submit a good candidate, one with a chance of striking the fancy of a letters editor. Major publications can receive hundreds of letters a day, from which to choose a handful. There are no shortcuts here (unless the editor is one’s brother-in-law). But “Rabbi Shafran’s How-To Guide” for writing a letter to the editor, below, might be helpful.

Rabbi Shafran’s eight pieces of advice follow the jump.

  1. Never Write and Send a Letter.
    That is to say that, after writing one’s letter, one should tear it up (or delete it from the screen). At very least, set it aside for a few hours. Letters always improve with subsequent re-writes, and excesses of emotion in a first draft tend to be softened somewhat-usually a good thing-in a second one.
  2. Cut.
    Long letters, like long sentences (like this one), are more demanding of readers, and trying to address all five points one would like to make when readers only have patience to consider one or two is counterproductive since it is confusing and off-putting, and since most readers in any event tend to just skim letters pages and settle on the shortest, punchiest offerings. Brevity is best.
  3. Become The Other.
    As one writes — and re-writes — a letter to the editor, it is important to put oneself in the minds of readers. If writing in a non-heimish Jewish publication, how will it strike a non-Orthodox Jew? A baal teshuvah? If in a non-Jewish publication, how will it strike a non-Jew? Considering one’s letter from an assortment of different perspectives will often inspire a well-chosen change of phrase or word or thought. Engineering a letter to engender empathy or respect isn’t always possible; but when it is, it’s a good idea.
  4. Resist Negativity.
    There’s a fine line between well-earned indignation and ranting. It’s best to couch even deserved criticism in words that earn a reader’s consideration rather than inspire him to grunt and move to the next letter.
  5. Keep Your Eye on the Prize.
    Remember that the overarching, ultimate goal is not to “score points” or even, necessarily, to present an unassailable argument. It is to affect others, to make them think about what you have to say. A point won at the expense of the reader’s good will is a tactical loss. Always think tachlis (substance).
  6. Write for the Uninformed.
    Don’t assume that the reader knows what you do. Include a reference to the article or editorial it addresses, and its date. And, if you use a Hebrew or Yiddish word or Jewish concept, include a succinct definition between commas or parentheses.
  7. Bait the Editor.
    Give your letter something “tasty” to help make it stand out from others the paper may have received on the same topic. It might be an original insight, your special credentials for addressing the issue, some surprising fact, or a bit of humor or cleverness (in which latter cases it should be tried out first on one’s spouse).
  8. Pay Attention to Packaging.
    Substance is paramount but superficiality counts. Misspellings or grammatical errors are invitations to editors to file a letter in the “circular file.” In addition, a letter to the editor should always include the telephone number[s] of the writer, so that the editor can call to confirm that it was indeed sent by the person signed to it.

Of course, the most important factor of any good letter to the editor is that it has something cogent to say. So before using the checklist above, see to it that your letter meets that requirement. If it does, even if the editor isn’t your brother-in-law, go for it!

Attack At Ozar Hatorah School In Toulouse, France

— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

The murderous attack on the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, France this morning is a tragedy that rightly tears the hearts of Jews and people of good will everywhere. More than a tragedy, though, it is an expression of evil, of the Jew-hatred that masquerades as many things but in its essence remains wickedness alone.

Agudath Israel of America joins in the mourning for our four brothers murdered in cold blood today, a teacher and his two children, and an 8-year old child. And we pray for the wounded 17-year-old’s full and quick recovery.

We also call upon the French authorities to leave no stone unturned in the search for the perpetrators of this repulsive act. Evil left to fester will only spread.

Administration Addresses Jewish Community Security Issues

Senator Charles Schumer addresses Agudath Israel’s Legislative Breakfast

— by Boruch Shubert

A number of officials representing the United States government at key levels of influence addressed several hundred communal leaders at the Second Annual Legislative Breakfast of Agudath Israel of America earlier today at the Down Town Association in Lower Manhattan. Speaking to the event’s theme of “Safety and Security in Our Communities,” the officials outlined a variety of areas in which government agencies are acting vigorously to ensure the physical well-being of the greater Jewish community both domestically and overseas.

Delivering the Keynote Address, Loretta E. Lynch, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, noted that – with New York City continuing to be a major target for potential terrorists – her office has expanded its focus from the aggressive pursuit of terrorist prosecutions to include an emphasis on the prevention of terrorist acts. “We work closely with the FBI and the New York Police Department to immediately investigate any threats of terrorism,” Lynch asserted, highlighting multiple recent cases wherein potential attacks on public transportation and other largely populated areas were thwarted. Detailing specific concerns in this regard, the US Attorney informed the audience that the authorities are on the lookout for Al-Qaeda-mobilized single, “lone-wolf” individuals who may attempt to commit acts of terror on their own; homegrown United States-based terrorists; and global terror cells that gain strength and adherents through strategic communications via the Internet. Noting that more than 400 terrorists have been convicted in this country over the decade since the 9/11 attacks, Lynch strongly stated her belief that “our federal court system is a proven and effective method for prosecuting terrorists.” Ms. Lynch was joined at the breakfast by Marshall Miller, who has served as the deputy chief of the criminal unit and today was named criminal division chief.

More after the jump.

Jarrod Bernstein, President Obama’s Director of Jewish Outreach delivers Special Greetings at Agudath Israel’s Legislative Breakfast

The audience was also treated to Special Greetings from Jarrod Bernstein, President Obama’s recently appointed Director of Jewish Outreach, who was making his first public appearance in his new role. Bernstein was introduced by Rabbi David Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel, who recounted how – just two days before this past Yom Kippur – he received word that a large shipment of lulavim was being held up at the airport due to security-related bureaucratic red tape, thereby causing numerous Jews to potentially be unable to fulfill the vital mitzvah of arba minim on the impending Sukkos holiday. After a quick phone call to Bernstein – who was then an official at the Department of Homeland Security – the lulavim were released in a few hours.

Speaking on behalf of the president, Bernstein stated that the administration is “working daily to ensure Israel’s security.” Elaborating on this point, he noted that President Obama has requested from Congress “the largest-ever amount of funding for military assistance for Israel”; spoke at the United Nations resolutely on behalf of the vitality of Israel; and spends a significant amount of time advocating for increased sanctions against Iran.

A partial view of the crowd at Agudath Israel’s Legislative Breakfast

Reprising his appearance at last year’s Legislative Breakfast, Senator Charles Schumer reiterated Congress’ firm support for the security of Israel, specifically with regard to planned attempts to further cut off Iran’s banking powers and to fully fund Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system. Turning to the domestic front, Schumer stated that “Agudath Israel does an amazing job caring for people in need with its social services,” and he asserted that – particularly with regard to education and job training programs – “we must cut our budgets carefully” so as not to endanger these vital services. “I have obtained many grants for the security of the community’s shuls and yeshivas,” the senator concluded, reaffirming his continuing close relationship with Agudath Israel.

Rabbi David Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America, speaking at the Agudath Israel of
America Legislative Breakfast.

The large audience – which included such dignitaries as NYC Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano, NY State Senator Daniel Squadron, NY State Assemblymen Alec Brook-Krasny and Rory Lancman, and New York City Councilmen Lew Fidler and Brad Lander – heard important remarks from several members of Congress with close ties to the Jewish community. Newly elected Congressman Robert (Bob) Turner spoke about his appointments to the crucial Foreign Affairs and Homeland Security Committees, and criticized both the United Nations and Iran for their anti-Israel stances. “We have to work hard to get regime change in Iran,” Turner declared. Avowing Congress’ strong backing of Israel, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney recalled the unusually enthusiastic response from the entire membership of Congress when it was addressed by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Commenting on the dismal economy, Congressman Jerrold Nadler spoke against the idea of massive spending cuts by the government, noting that “the community needs housing and food assistance now more than ever.” Separately, Nadler called on President Obama to criticize Palestinian President Abbas for refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and insisted that “there is no greater danger in the world today than Iran” due to its nuclear intentions, Nadler concluded.

Jarrod Bernstein, White House Jewish Liaison, addressing the Agudath Israel of America Legislative Breakfast.

The audience also heard from community activist Abe Eisner, who read a message of support for Agudath Israel from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo; Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer; New York City Controller John Liu; and Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, Agudath Israel’s Vice President for Community Services, who highlighted the organization’s many valuable social programs. “Agudath Israel of America sponsors a broad range of communal social services affecting the lives of young and old throughout the New York City metropolitan area,” he explained. “Agudath Israel of America’s projects include job placement, vocational training and counseling services, housing and neighborhood preservation initiatives, as well as a host of senior citizen and children’s welfare projects – including a variety of initiatives specifically directed toward enhancing security and safety.” The Legislative Breakfast was chaired by Joseph Zelmanovitz, Esq, Partner in Stahl and Zelmanovitz, and was graciously sponsored by Health Plus, and Med Review and coordinated by the Friedlander group.

Many participants expressed positive sentiments on the very high level of discussion and the broad range of issues the various speakers broached. A venerable Who’s Who of influential legislative leaders made the effort on an early Monday morning to affirm the prominent role and political position the Orthodox Jewish community and Agudath Israel holds in the halls of government. One respected community leader seemed to sum up the feelings of those in attendance. “It is important to interact and dialogue with our government officials. That they clearly recognize and admire the importance of our community and Agudath Israel’s wide reach is even more impressive.”

Ezra Friedlander CEO of the Friedlander Group, Chaskel Bennett Board of Trustees of Agudath Israel of America, Jarrod Bernstein White House Jewish Liaison, Rabbi David Zwiebel, ESQ. Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America, Joseph B. Stamm President and CEO of Med Review, Event Sponsor, Jospeh Zelmanovitz Breakfast Chairman and Partner at Stahl & Zelmanovitz, Congressman Bob Turner, Abe Eisner, Mr. Leon Goldenberg, and Shlomo Werdiger who are members of the Agudath Israel of America leadership.

-U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer addressing the Agudath Israel of America Legislative Breakfast. Left to Right: Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz Agudath Israel of America’s Vice President for Community Services, Rabbi David Zwiebel, ESQ. Executive Vice President, Mr. Gedaliah Weinberger Chairman of the Board, Jospeh Zelmanovitz Breakfast Chairman and Partner at Stahl & Zelmanovitz, Joseph B. Stamm President and CEO of Med Review, Event Sponsor, Jonathan Zalisky, Senior Community Relations Coordinator of Health Plus, Event Sponsor, Chaskel Bennett Board of Trustees of Agudath Israel of America.

Congressman Bob Turner addressing the Agudath Israel of America Legislative Breakfast

Agudath Israel of America Praises Obama UN Speech

Rabbi David Zwiebel
 hspace=— Rabbi David Zwiebel

Mr. President,

On behalf of thousands of families that comprise Agudath Israel of America’s Orthodox Jewish constiutuency across the nation, I write to commend you for your clear and wise words to the United Nations General Assembly earlier this week.

The stance you took on the Palestinian Authority’s ill-conceived unilateral declaration of statehood was courageous and principled. So too was your pointed description of the daily dangers Israel faces

By reprising both the distant and not-so-distant Jewish past, and referring overtly to the ‘historic homeland’ of the Jewish people, you boldly stated facts that have been crying out for a voice…. your speech at the United Nations further confirmed your deep concern for Israel and her citizens.

Coming mere weeks after your unhesitating and decisive action to rescue the Israelis who were trapped my a mob in Cairo, you speech at the United Nations confirmed your deep concern for Israel and her citizens.

The Jewish religion hallows a concept called hakarat hatov – that when good is done, it must be recognized and appreciated.

We recognize the good you have done. And we deeply appreciate it.

Sincerely, Rabbi David Zweibel

Reactions to the Terrorist Attack in Itamar

Saturday morning in Itamar terrorists killed five members of an Israeli family, including three children, in their sleep. We collected responses from the White House, Ameinu, the Union for Reform Judaism, Agudath Israel of America, and B’nai Brith International.

Jay Carney, White House Press Secretary:

We condemn in the strongest possible terms the murder of five Israelis in a terrorist attack in the northern West Bank, and we offer our condolences to their loved ones and to the Israeli people.  There is no possible justification for the killing of parents and children in their home. We call on the Palestinian Authority to unequivocally condemn this terrorist attack and for the perpetrators of this heinous crime to be held accountable.

More reactions after the jump.
Kenneth Bob, President of Ameinu:

“This act of terror can not pass silently. Nothing can justify the killing of innocents, particularly children. Israelis and Palestinians must remember their shared humanity and reject brutality and violence.”

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffe, President of the Union for Reform Judaism:

We condemn in the strongest of terms the senseless massacre of an innocent Israeli family in their sleep. The thought of a knife slaughter which included victims, ages eleven, four and three-months is sickening to us. There is no place in this world, or in the struggle for peace in the Middle East, for this sort of violence.

We pray for the three surviving children in the family, all under the age of 12, who are left without their parents and siblings. No child should ever be forced to go through what these children are undoubtedly going through and our hearts go out to them and all members of the community of Itamar.

We welcome the condemnations of the attacks by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. We urge them to follow-through on their statements with actions that bring the perpetrators to justice and strongly reinforce the message that violence like this will not be tolerated by the Palestinian leadership. Further, we support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge to safeguard the citizens of Israel and punish the murderers.

We call for swift justice for the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the armed wing of Fatah, which claimed responsibility for the attack, characterizing it as a “heroic operation.” This sort of blatant disregard for the value of human life is appalling and we hope that together the Israelis and the Palestinians will work to ensure that this violence remains an isolated incident and does not escalate.

Agudath Israel of America:

Every person with a Jewish heart-in fact every person with an unsullied human heart-feels only sorrow, anguish and outrage over what befell the Fogel family in Itamar this past Shabbos night.

There comes a point when words cannot convey the depth of evil.  No phrase in any language can truly describe the depravity of people who are capable of creeping into a peaceful home in the middle of the night and stab to death an 11-year-old, a 4-year-old, a baby girl three months of age and their parents.

And so we are left with only the heartbreak and tears, and the pools of innocent Jewish blood that the perpetrators of these despicable acts left behind in their evil wake.

May the world be left with something too: a better appreciation of why Israelis might be reluctant to trust the intentions of people who hate them so viscerally, and of authorities whose media and school textbooks feed demonization of “Zionists” to their violence-prone culture.

May the blood of these precious innocents be avenged soon and fully by the Av Harachamim.

B’nai B’rith International:

B’nai B’rith International condemns the brutal and horrific murders of Udi and Ruth Fogel and their children Yoav, 11; Elad, 4 and Hadas, 3 months, in their home in the West Bank settlement of Itamar on March 11, on the eve of Shabbat.

“An attack of this nature defies comprehension,” B’nai B’rith International President Dennis W. Glick said. “Acts of brutality like this make a total mockery of the peace process.”

The attack was claimed by terrorist group Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades of Imad Mughniyeh.

“The murder of this family was the act of inhuman and depraved individuals,” B’nai B’rith International Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin said. “The constant stream of anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli hate speech and incitement condoned by the Palestinian authorities, since the Oslo Accords of 1993, breeds the kind of despicable violence that ended the lives of this family.”

B’nai B’rith International stands in solidarity with the friends and family of the Fogels, and with the Israeli people as they struggle to cope with the aftermath of the attack.

Maryland Supreme Court To Hear Religious Freedom Case

Orthodox Jewish plaintiff claims court’s refusal to recess trial over Shavuot violated his religious rights.
— Rabbi Avi Shafan

A Silver Spring, Maryland Orthodox Jew’s claim that judges in the Montgomery County Circuit Court violated his religious rights by refusing to recess his medical malpractice suit over the Jewish holiday of Shavuos is now before the state’s highest court.

Alexander Neustadter is charging that the judges considered the “efficiency of the docket” to trump his need to observe the Jewish holiday, which observance includes restrictions that prevented him from appearing in court.

Agudath Israel of America filed a “friend of the court” brief  in the Maryland Court of Appeals in support of Mr. Neustadter’s position.  The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment’s protection of citizen’s free exercise of religion, the brief claims, well covers cases like the one being considered by the Appeals Court.  It notes that Mr. Neustadter filed a number of motions calling the court’s attention to his inability to appear in court during the two days of Shavuos, and the similar inability of his lawyer, who would be acting as his agent, to attend the trial on those days.  The motions were denied.

Although the Agudath Israel brief makes clear that the organization takes no position on Mr. Neustadter’s malpractice suit itself, it takes strong issue with a contention made by the defendant in the suit that the holiday of Shavuos is strictly observed only by “a subsect of the Orthodox Jewish faith” – an assertion Agudath Israel calls “completely untrue and legally irrelevant.”  As to what is legally relevant, the Orthodox group’s brief cites U.S. Supreme Court rulings that being forced to choose between a religious obligation and a court penalty generally constitutes an abrogation of an American’s religious rights.

Only a “compelling state interest,” the brief continues, can legally justify such an abrogation of a fundamental right – and the “efficient and orderly administration of justice” – which the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the intermediate appellate court, ruled justified the lower court’s rejection of Mr. Neustadter’s motions – does not satisfy that requirement.

Although there are in fact scattered legal precedents for considering the efficient administration of justice to trump individual rights, the Agudath Israel brief cites the particular cases and explains how each of them is qualitatively different from the case before the court.

The Agudath Israel brief was authored by the organization’s Washington Office director and counsel, Rabbi Abba Cohen, Steven A. Loewy, a prominent Rockville, Maryland attorney, assisted by Agudath Israel legal intern Miss Jenny Figa.

“The courts of our country are looked up to by the public as the guardians of the laws of our country,” the Agudath Israel submission concludes. “If a court can trample on an individual’s ability to observe his religion, as was done in this case, the message to employers, teachers, and all others in positions of authority over others is clear: interests of efficiency are more important than respecting an individual’s religious observances.”

Agudath Israel Interacts with State Department & White House

Encouraging words about Israel, Foreign and Domestic Issues, from Obama Administration.
— Rabbi Avi Shafran

WASHINGTON, D.C. — More than 150 men and women took a day from their regular responsibilities to be part of an Agudath Israel of America delegation that arrived in Washington early last Thursday morning, July 29, for a day that saw nonstop meetings with members of Congress as well as both State Department and White House officials.  What the participants in the National Leadership Mission to Washington heard from the Administration on the two most important issues on their minds – America’s commitment to Israel’s security and federal education aid to nonpublic schools – was, in the words of one delegate, “clearly positive.”

The day began with Shacharis, of course, either on a bus headed south from the New York area or at the hotel where some participants had spent the previous night.  But it wasn’t long before all the Agudath Israel activists had gathered at the U.S. State Department, where they were addressed by Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs; Hannah Rosenthal, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism; and Douglas Davidson, Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues.

Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel Washington Office director and counsel, who organized the National Leadership Mission and facilitated the day’s meetings, offered greetings, and the proceedings were then turned over to Agudath Israel chairman of the board, Rabbi Gedaliah Weinberger, who chaired the session and introduced the morning’s speakers.  

Mr. Feltman was the first to address the delegation.  He repeated the United States’ endorsement of a “two state solution” to the Israel-Palestinian situation.  At the same time, he took pains to state clearly and forcefully that the U.S.’s commitment to Israel is “unbreakable and unwavering,” citing “common interests” both countries share and “common threats” both countries face.  Mr. Feltman also addressed the situations in Iraq and Yemen, and responded to questions from delegates on Turkey’s recent actions and the incorrigibility of Hamas.

The next presenter was Ms. Rosenthal.  The Special Envoy spoke of her “personal roots” as a Jew and how her background informs her current official responsibility.  Referring to 2009 as “not a good year for either human rights or Jews,” Ms. Rosenthal identified several contemporary trends in anti-Semitism:  “old fashioned” hatred-fueled vandalism and blood libels, Holocaust denial, Holocaust “relativism” (comparisons that “diminish the scale and scope” of the Shoah), Holocaust glorification (rife in the Islamic world), anti-Israel stances tainted with anti-Jewish attitudes (the disgraced journalist Helen Thomas’ unguarded statement of several weeks ago, the Special Envoy said, was “a gift to us” in having exposed and example of such ill will) and anti-Semitism born of a general disdain of “the other,” particularly in Europe.

Ms. Rosenthal spoke of the tools her office uses to identify and combat anti-Jewish attitudes and acts, and took questions from delegates about the United Nations Human Rights Council and the sorry state of hate-filled Palestinian textbooks.

Mr. Davidson, the final State Department official to address the delegates, spoke about the misappropriation of Jewish-owned property and valuables during and after the Holocaust, as well as the desecration of Jewish holy sites (such as synagogues and cemeteries).  He outlined the efforts of his office to do what can be done to right such wrongs.  The results, he admitted, can never be more than (referencing the title of Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat’s 2004 book) “imperfect justice,” but what restitution and restoration can be had, he insisted, must be had.

Early afternoon found the group on Capitol Hill for a luncheon that was attended or visited by a veritable bi-partisan parade of Senators and Congressmen, each of whom briefly welcomed and addressed the delegation.  The Senators, who were warmly introduced by the luncheon session chairman, Agudath Israel executive vice president Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, included Scott Brown (R – MA), Benjamin Cardin (D – MD), Saxby Chambliss (R – GA), Johnny Isakson (R – GA), Joseph I. Lieberman (ID – CT), Robert Menendez (D – NJ), Charles E. Schumer (D – NY) and Debbie Stabenow (D – MI).

The Representatives who addressed the assemblage were: William “Bill” Cassidy of Louisiana, Steven Rothman of New Jersey, John P. Sarbanes of Maryland and Anthony D. Weiner of New York.  In addition, Representatives Yvette Clarke of New York and Bill Pascrell of New Jersey joined the lunch gathering as well.

Highlights of the luncheon included a current of strong statements of support for Israel’s right to defend herself, Senator Isakson’s recall of his response to a Georgia hinterlands talk-show caller who warily asked if he was a Jew (“No, but I’d be very proud if I was”), Senator Brown’s statement that the Obama Administration “needs to be more public about” the fact that “Israel is our strongest ally in the region,” Senator Menendez’ discovery (having been so informed by Senator Lieberman) that his surname is on a list of common Spanish Jewish names, Congressman Weiner’s strong words concerning the “injustice going on” in the Rubashkin case and Senator Lieberman’s heartfelt words about how legislators’ and American citizens’ acceptance and even appreciation of his Shabbos observance says much about America – a “different place” for Jews, he stressed, historically speaking.

After the luncheon, the Agudath Israel delegation proceeded to the White House.  

Before the session began, it was noted that Rabbi Zwiebel had missed one of his son’s and new daughter-in-law’s Sheva Brachos the previous night because of the Washington Mission, and that he would be leaving a bit before the program was over to join that night’s Sheva Brachos seudah in Brooklyn.  A spontaneous chorus of “Siman Tov U’Mazal Tov” ensued, perhaps a first for the White House.

Rabbi Cohen chaired the White House session, and outlined some of the issues that would be discussed, explaining their pertinence to the Orthodox community’s interests and describing Agudath Israel’s deep involvement in promoting those issues and advancing those interests.

The delegates were greeted by Susan Sher, a key Administration liaison to the Jewish community and the First Lady’s chief of staff.  Ms. Sher spoke briefly to the delegates about her responsibilities regarding Jewish outreach and about the projects undertaken by Mrs. Obama, and recounted a story about the media-noted White House seder this past Pesach.  She was, however, tight-lipped about who found the afikoman and what was received as reward for the successful hunt.

Less entertaining but more substantive was the address that followed, by Roberto J. Rodríguez, who serves in the White House Domestic Policy Council as Special Assistant to President Obama for Education.  Mr. Rodriguez addressed a number of educational issues, including early childhood programs and standards reform.  The Administration, he said, embraced the goals of the “No Child Left Behind” law, an initiative of the George W. Bush administration, and, impressed his listeners by insisting that “we’re committed to preserving” the equitability of private and public schools with regard to the law’s implementation.  During the presidential campaign, there was much speculation about whether an Obama administration would be sympathetic to the needs of the nonpublic school community.

Agudath Israel delegates and staff  posed challenging questions to the Administration official, who responded thoughtfully, welcoming the input and challenges, and extending an offer to follow up and “work together” to address the needs of religious schools and how the government might better help such schools survive and thrive.  While Agudath Israel’s Washington Office has been actively involved with the White House and Department of Education on these issues on an ongoing basis, this public (and, later, private) interaction with Mr. Rodriguez allowed parents and professionals to share their unique perspectives “from the field” – a vantage point in which he seemed very interested.

Next to speak with the Agudath Israel delegation was Mara Vanderslice, Deputy Director for the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  She cited the contributions of the nation’s faith-based communities to addressing societal ills and declared the Obama Administration’s commitment to the importance of equity for religious institutions – not only in the awarding of federal social service funding but also in the administration of such programs.  “While we want to respect the separation of church and state,” she said, “we are committed to religious groups being able to maintain their religious beliefs even as they participate in faith-based grants.” As Agudath Israel’s long-standing and prominent advocacy on this issue has heavily stressed the religious liberty of program participants, this was welcome reassurance.

The final two Administration officials to meet with the Agudath Israel delegation were, first, Dan Shapiro, the National Security Council’s Senior Director for Middle East and North Africa, and the White House’s point man on Israel; and Dennis Ross, the NSC’s Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region, and the Administration’s chief advisor on the Iranian situation.  This segment of the session was “closed door” and reporters and delegates were asked to turn off any recording devices.

Both officials went into some detail that is beyond the scope of what can be published, but in general, Mr. Shapiro spoke of the Administration’s ongoing interaction with Israeli officials, and of President Obama’s request of Congress to allocate $205 million for the Iron Dome missile-interception system Israel is developing.  He also noted that the threats to Israel include not only terrorism and military attack but the delegitimizing of the country itself.  Mr. Shapiro declared the Administration’s determination to join Israel in that battle, too, noting its walk-out at Durban II, its efforts to prevent the Goldstone Report from advancing and its opposition to the United Nation’s condemnation of Israel over the “Turkish flotilla” affair.

For his part, Mr. Ross also vigorously asserted the Obama Administration’s commitment to Israel, and addressed the vexing issue of Iran and its nuclear program.  In a detailed and wide ranging analysis, he made the case for the efficacy of economic sanctions, and contended that the recent intensification of economic pressure on Iran has already shown signs that it is having an effect.  
Both men’s addresses were, in the words of one delegate, “impressive, even encouraging.”

After the National Leadership Mission’s end, Rabbi Zwiebel had words of thanks for Rabbi Cohen, and the Agudath Israel Washington Office director offered thanks of his own to all the Senators, Representatives and Administration officials who had offered comments to the delegation.  He expressed special gratitude to Ms. Mary Pensabene and Ms. Eileen Place, of the State Department’s Office of Public Liaison; and to Ms. Sher and Ms. Danielle Borrin, Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Special Assistant to the Vice President.  The efforts of those officials, Rabbi Cohen said, in facilitating, respectively, the State Department and White House interactions were “truly invaluable.”

Rabbi Cohen also stressed the importance of missions like Thursday’s, which “allow our community and government officials to directly interact and communicate our concerns on issues of importance to us.”  He emphasized as well how the participation of delegates from states across the nation provides crucial weight to Agudath Israel’s presence in the nation’s capital.  “National Leadership Missions like this one,” he said, “increase Agudath Israel’s stature in Washington, which in turn empowers us to accomplish the maximum we can for the community.”

What is a National Leadership Mission, Anyway?

For the past three decades, Agudath Israel of America has been organizing National Leadership Missions to Washington approximately every two years.  The purpose of the delegations, explains Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, the organization’s executive vice president, is manifold.

“First and foremost,” he says, “the missions demonstrate to elected officials in a direct and impressive way the geographical and demographic diversity of the Orthodox Jewish community in the United States.  This year we had delegates from 16 states, and there was a particularly strong showing of younger askonim from many locales.

“Secondly, the makeup of the group provides members of Congress and Administration officials an accurate and impressive picture of the diversity of the frum community itself.  They see Chassidim alongside clean-shaven men who, aside from their hats or yarmulkes, might look like any other citizens; they see black coats alongside business suits.  And when they meet delegates, they come to realize they are meeting students, scholars, businesspeople, doctors, lawyers and other professionals.”

Rabbi Zwiebel adds that the impression made on government officials goes beyond educating them about the Orthodox community.  “It also lays the groundwork for the effectiveness of the work Agudath Israel – and especially our Washington Office – does the rest of the year.”  When such officials are approached about an issue or situation important to the community, he explains, “they have a memory – or can be reminded – of who we are.”

“These missions,” Rabbi Zwiebel adds, “also provide an important service by getting comments and commitments from government officials ‘on the record’.”  Elected and appointed officials can thereby be held accountable for anything they may have stated or pledged to the delegation.

What is more, the Agudath Israel leader notes, “there is a special chizuk provided all of us who are involved in ongoing shtadlonus with the government by the time and effort so freely and enthusiastically given by members of the community who participate in the missions.”

Chizuk is also provided to the delegates themselves, Rabbi Zwiebel asserts, by their fellow delegates.  “When Jews committed to the principles that underlay Agudath Israel come together from diverse communities and cites,” he explains, “there is a trading of notes and reports from their respective environments that allows all of the delegates to gain a better understanding of parts of the frum world they might otherwise have little or no knowledge about.  And the sharing of information, experiences and strategies, as one might imagine, often leads to more effective shtadlonus on all fronts.”

Rabbi Zwiebel takes pains to note that “True shtadlonus differs from what the larger world calls ‘lobbying’ or ‘advocacy.’  At Agudas Yisroel, we have been trained that the issues of the day, and our approach toward dealing with them, must be filtered through the prism of daas Torah and the guidance of our Gedolei Yisroel.

“Furthermore, we approach our mission with the essential realization that it is not our efforts themselves that can bear fruit, but rather that our summoning the effort and giving up time can merit Hashem’s intercession on behalf of Klal Yisroel.

That mindset was evident even the evening before this year’s mission, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Silver Spring, Maryland, where Agudath Israel representatives from across the country delivered reports and briefings on their activities.  As a prefact to those reports, Rabbi Berel Weisbord, Mashgiach Ruchni of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, delivered divrei chizuk vi’his’orerus to the assembled, focusing on what it means to be “osek bitzorchei tzibbur be’emunah” – and why the reward for such faithful askonus is so great.

Says Rabbi Zwiebel: “We are blessed to live in a country where we have access to our government leaders.  Experience has shown that if we use that access well, and within the framework of an authentic Torah Judaism approach, bi’siyata di’Shmaya, we can often accomplish great things for Klal Yisroel.”