What would prompt dozens of men and women from all across the country to leave their homes, their families and their businesses behind and to travel hundreds of miles in order to spend two intense days rushing from meeting to meeting in Washington D.C.? The answer, in a word, is responsibility.
“Each one of us has the ability to make a difference in the lives of so many others by taking the time to connect with our elected officials and letting our voices be heard,” said Mr. Shlomo Werdiger, Chairman of Agudath Israel of America’s Board of Trustees. “Our Washington mission allows us take advantage of the golden opportunity afforded to us by the democratic process to discuss our communal concerns at the federal level so that we can effectively advocate for the needs of the Jewish community.”
The Agudah mission began on Tuesday, March 12th and included a comprehensive agenda of timely issues that were discussed at back to back high level meetings.
Setting an inspiring and insightful tone for the delegates, prominent constitutional scholar and religious rights champion Nathan Lewin shared his observations on how dedicated advocates who are engaged in the legislative process can become effective catalysts for change, particularly today when the Supreme Court appears to be more favorably disposed towards religious rights than in the past. Mr. Lewin spoke about religious freedom cases that he has argued in his own half-century long career and discussed the major role his father played in the 1957 federal kosher slaughter legislation that remains on the books today. Mr. Lewin also discussed the expressions of anti-Semitism that have disturbingly surfaced, noting that they may be the harbinger of a more serious situation in the future.
Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel’s Vice President for Government Affairs and Washington Director, concluded the day’s session by outlining and reviewing the organization’s detailed list of foreign and domestic agenda items that delegates would be discussing the next day with administration officials and on Capitol Hill.
Those issues included:
International Anti-Semitism: The Honorable Elan Carr, the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, addressed the importance of taking steps to holistically combat attitudes and incidents of anti-Semitism throughout the world, wherever they occur, as well as the real threats that have been materializing in this country on college campuses and other venues with alarming frequency. Referencing the upcoming holiday of Purim, Special Envoy Carr noted that just as unity among the Jewish nation was a key element in the victory over Haman, only by joining together as one can triumph over anti-Semitism in today’s world.
Federal Tax Credit Scholarship Proposal: A highlight of the mission was a robust discussion of the newly proposed multi-billion dollar Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act. The lunch session in the Senate featured U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and bill sponsors Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Representative Bradley Byrne (R-AL). All three “school choice” leaders emphasized the importance of the proposed plan to provide federal tax credits to individuals and companies that fund nonprofit scholarships which could benefit children throughout the United States, including those attending Jewish schools. The plan was also discussed at an earlier meeting at the U.S. Department of Education, with senior officials Assistant Secretary Jim Blew and Policy Advisor McKenzie Snow, who reviewed the fine points of the proposal and answered delegates’ questions. Mr. Blew and Ms. Snow credited Rabbi Cohen for the significant role he played in crafting aspects of the legislation, particularly as it pertains to the inclusion and wording of protections for religious liberties. The day’s education agenda also included enhancing equitable educational opportunities and services for religious school students, overturning state Blaine Amendments which often restrict those services, and the positive implications of the previous day’s decision by the Department to no longer prohibit religious groups from providing instructional and other services for federal education programs.
Religious Rights: With the growing frequency in recent years of local jurisdictions utilizing zoning and land use ordinances to restrict the placement of synagogues and other religious facilities in neighborhoods with Orthodox Jewish populations, mission delegates addressed the topic of religious discrimination with U.S. Attorney General William Barr. A strong advocate for religious freedom, who as Attorney General over 25 years ago ordered the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene when the Jewish community of Airmont, N.Y. faced a discriminatory land use ordinance, Attorney General Barr discussed his continued commitment to protecting religious rights in these and other contexts. He further evinced his understanding that all-too-often these land use ordinances are a means through which those which anti-Semitic intentions seek to keep Jews out of their towns and villages. Moreover, amid growing concerns in the wake of last fall’s Tree of Life Synagogue massacre, John Gore and Eric Treene, top officials on the Department’s Civil Rights and Religious Discrimination staffs, addressed specific religious rights issues including providing greater security at houses of worship and improving hate crimes reporting and prosecution.
The mission also gave delegates, who represented ten states, an opportunity to meet in small groups with nearly 30 members of Congress and senior staffers to discuss issues including Israel, anti-BDS legislation, anti-Semitism, religious liberties, security grants, the Education Freedom scholarship tax credit and nonprofit tax burdens.
Working with Rabbi Cohen on the two day mission were Agudah officials Rabbi Labish Becker, executive director, Rabbi A.D. Motzen, National Director of State Relations, Agudah’s state and regional directors, Mrs. Judith Dinowitz, Agudah’s data asset manager, and Mrs. Debby Jacobs, Events Coordinator.
Over the course of the mission, words of insight and inspiration were shared with the delegates by Mr. Werdiger, Rabbi David Zwiebel, Executive Vice President, Dr. Irving Lebovics, Chairman of Agudath Israel of California and Rabbi Motzen.