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.”


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