Obama, Congresspersons Call for Justice System Reform at Local NAACP Convention

President Barack Obama pressed the 10,000 conventioneers at the NAACP to help him effect domestic reforms, including the criminal justice system, as well as investments in education.

President Barack Obama pressed the 10,000 conventioneers at the NAACP to help him effect domestic reforms, including the criminal justice system, as well as investments in education.

The thousands of NAACP delegates, alternates and supporters who descended on the Philadelphia Convention Center for the 106th national convention of the NAACP were rewarded for their travels and loyalty. Many members of Congress spoke at the plenary sessions and themed workshops.

President Barack Obama, just on the heels of the successful negotiation with Iran, flew from Washington to Philadelphia to address the NAACP convention. His speech focused on domestic priorities, with no mention of the Iran deal, but the news spread and no one needed to be reminded that the President has had a couple of really good weeks.

Speakers like Congressman James Clyburn (SC-6) and U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger, spoke passionately about the need to reform the criminal justice system, to root out discrimination and profiling and unequal sentencing for African Americans.

President Obama, in his speech, explained why he commuted sentences for dozens of prisoners who, if they had been charged and sentenced today, would have received far less severe prison terms for non-violent drug offenses or possession of drugs like marijuana. He gave examples of ex-offenders he had just met, who had served their sentences and then redeemed their lives. They are now tax-paying citizens.

Right before I came out here, I met with four former prisoners, four ex-offenders. Two of them were African American, one of them was Latino, one of them was white. All of them had amazing stories. One of them dropped out of school when he was a young kid. Now he’s making film about his experience in the prison system.

One of them served 10 years in prison, then got a job at Five Guys — which is a tasty burger — and they gave him an opportunity, and he rose up and became a general manager there, and now is doing anti-violence work here in the community.

It was a treat to watch the NAACP session on resolutions, the debates from the floor, the challenges to the chair, the re-counts, the urging of the NAACP member from Georgia to pass a resolution requiring the removal of ALL Confederate flags from every single state’s public grounds. This amended resolution, or “game-changer,” as the NAACP calls them, passed overwhelmingly.

And it was heartening on the day of the first plenary session to hear Cornell Brooks, the national president of the NAACP, tell a story about a baby born down south who weighed only three pounds and was not expected to survive until night-time. But the doctor who delivered the baby told the mother to pray, if she believed in God. Brooks said the woman called for a chaplain in the hospital, but no preacher or minister was available. But here was a rabbi serving as chaplain, and he came and prayed with the mother.

Senator Bob Casey was featured at the NAACP Convention opening plenary session.  He urged the 8000 attendees from around the country to contact their members of Congress and push for Casey's funding bill for universal early education.

At the NAACP Convention opening plenary session, Senator Bob Casey urged the 8000 attendees to contact their members of Congress around the country and push for his universal early education funding bill.

Then Brooks delivered the punch-line: “And that is why I am standing here today!”

Although I did not hear a mention of the three martyred civil rights workers, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, I thought about them often as I traveled the halls of the Philadelphia Convention Center from plenary session to workshops. Listening to heroes like Congressman Jim Clyburn, Senator Bob Casey (PA), Congresswomen Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-23) and Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), and Senator Corey Booker (NJ), was inspirational.

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who heads up the Democratic National Committee, urged the conventioneers to register to vote and get involved in politics.

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who heads up the Democratic National Committee, urged the conventioneers to register to vote and get involved in politics.

Wasserman Schultz, from Florida, who heads up the Democratic National Committee, focused on voting rights reform in her address to the entire corps of NAACP members. She told me about the unfairness of the voter ID laws in many states and of her intention to increase registration and voting patterns of African Americans.

I bumped into Joyce Kravitz, the president of Tikvah/AJMI, the Philadelphia region’s nonprofit agency for families with members dealing with mental illness. Kravitz, a social work professor, has been an NAACP member for many years, and she attended this year’s convention with her former student, an African American social worker.

Pennsylvania state Representative Jim Roebuck, who has been advocating for Governor Tom Wolf’s budget which restores funding for pre-K and public education, was in attendance. Congressmen Chaka Fattah (PA-2) and Brendan Boyle (PA-13) accompanied President Obama on Air Force One from D.C. to the convention.

NAACP has made national news every day of the convention, and President Bill Clinton and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch made the closing day of the convention memorable.

Photo credit: Bonnie Squires

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