By: Shoshana Bernstein
The depth and breadth of Agudath Israel of America’s reach was clearly illustrated on Thursday, July 25th when over 200 delegates from across the United States and Canada joined together in Agudath Israel’s highly impressive and impactful National Leadership Mission to Washington. The thrilling opportunity to view imposing landmarks and interact with high ranking government leaders was further elevated with the unified involvement of so many informed, intelligent, professional, and respectful participants, and served as the ultimate exemplification of ‘see and be seen’, creating a Kiddush Hashem of immeasurable value.
The Mission, organized by Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin, Agudath Israel’s Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration, and Rabbi Abba Cohen, Vice President for Federal Government Affairs, was divided into three sessions. Each resulted in extremely worthy dialogue regarding such issues as support for the security of Israel, the preservation of the social safety net, school choice, and national and international security as it pertains to the Orthodox Jewish population at home and abroad.
Agudath Israel’s capacity to effect change and forward momentum in these and other areas was in fact remarked upon in a meeting the preceding day between the organization’s Board of Trustees and the leadership of the United States House of Representatives, during which House Majority Leader Eric Cantor commented, “I’ve always admired Agudath Israel for their grassroots ability.”
Rabbi Yehiel Kalish, Agudath Israel’s National Director of Government Affairs, observed, “When the Speaker himself says he will use his office to help pass School Choice legislation in states across the country it gives us the credibility and support necessary to achieve; made possible when caring individuals take the time to support the work of Agudath Israel.”
First on the agenda was a visit to the Department of Treasury. Anticipation ran high as participants patiently awaited their turn to pass through tight security checks. Once inside the imposing Treasury building, delegates headed for the Media Room and were greeted by Rosie Rios, the 43rd Treasurer of the United States, who welcomed Agudath Israel to the Treasury. After providing an overview of the Treasury’s activities, Ms. Rios talked about plans to release the Raoul Wallenberg Congressional Gold Medal and invited ongoing interaction between Agudath Israel and the Treasury Department.
David Cohen, Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, then took to the podium and provided fascinating insights into the significant steps the Treasury Department has taken in regard to Iran sanctions and ending the financing through domestic groups, of terrorism overseas. He reflected that in some aspects, the work of his department dovetails with the efforts and concern of Agudath Israel regarding security in the Middle East. Mr. Cohen’s remarks were followed by those of Eytan Fisch and Daniel Moger, Assistant Directors for Policy, Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Mark Mazur, Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy, then addressed one of the most pressing concerns of our communities — the current Administration’s intent regarding tax reforms as they pertain to businesses, individuals, and charitable institutions. Looming budget cuts, as well as the future viability of the charitable deduction, were also discussed.
School Choice and the urgent need to mitigate the prohibitive tuition costs our communities face was one recurring and highly relevant dialogue, raised by Daniel Retter Esq. His comments were underscored by Rabbi Meir Melnicke, who suggested that the separation between Church and State would not be implicated through governmental subsidization of the secular teachers within yeshivos and other religious schools. The Treasury session then concluded, Mr. Mazur having clearly enjoyed the interactive and informed exchanges of information.
Luncheon at the Senate – Food for Thought
Towering ceilings, carved edifices, hushed hallways, and beautifully appointed rooms created an appropriately sophisticated venue for the Senate Luncheon and the procession of prominent Senators and Congresspersons who graced Agudath Israel with their presence and rousing support, even while a vote was occurring on the Senate Floor.
As attendees took their seats to enjoy a catered lunch, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel, began by reflecting that, “I can only imagine the nachas Rav Moshe Sherer z’l would have, in seeing how our numbers and impact have grown and expanded.” Throughout the luncheon, Rabbi Zwiebel introduced each speaker with his trademark eloquence, thanking them for their contributions and services on behalf of our communities.
Among the speakers and the themes addressed were: Senator Dan Coats (R-IN), whose long time relationship with Agudath Israel includes his championing of School Choice and religious liberty protections, particularly in the work place; Senator Mark Begich (D-AK), who has been recently elevated to a Democratic leadership position and has made outreach to the Orthodox Jewish community on domestic and foreign policy issues a priority; and Senator James Risch (R-ID), who emphasized religious freedom and rights and went on to discuss the Iran nuclear threat and its negative impact on the region.
Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) stressed the non-negotiable baseline recognition of the right of Israel to exist, particularly at a time where Middle East negotiations are being restarted; and Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) spoke about the Jewish community and religious values, pointing out that, “The Waterbury Yeshiva has transformed the community—morally and economically”.
The importance of Agudath Israel’s work in Washington was underscored by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), who commended the gathering saying, “It is critically important that we continue to engage in the political system, and you, Agudath Israel, do that very effectively.” Senator David Vitter (R-LA) thanked Agudath Israel for its activism on so many important issues.
In addition to the Senators who addressed the Mission delegates, a number of prominent members of the House of Representatives participated in the lunch gathering as well. Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-NY) of Queens was lauded for her leadership in the effort to ensure the eligibility of Houses of Worship for federal disaster relief assistance post Hurricane Sandy. Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Subcommittee, received an appreciative round of applause for the legislation he recently introduced to expand the earned income tax credit for larger families, a highly impactful step for Orthodox families. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), declared his support for cost-effective education for the Jewish community; and Congressman Chris Gibson (R-NY) as well as New Jersey Assemblyman Gary Schaer were acknowledged by Rabbi Zwiebel.
Special guest Nathan Lewin, Esq. described his latest legal initiatives on behalf of the Jewish community, after being introduced by Rabbi Zwiebel as “A towering giant who has used his legal expertise for the good of the klal”. Attendees were surprised and delighted by the participation of Canadian MP, Mark Adler who accompanied Mr. Mark Mandelbaum of Toronto. So impressed was Mr. Adler with the obvious scope of Agudath Israel’s impact in Washington, he vowed to go back to Toronto and create a similar event with members of Agudath Israel in Canada and the Canadian government in Ottawa.
Duvie Perkowski and Chaim Zelmanowitz from Lakewood, both young participants, shared their impressions of the luncheon, “Hearing all the Congressmen and Senators speak so positively about Agudath Israel is a clear indication that Agudah’s reach is very far and very well respected.”
The White House-Interaction at the Highest Level
The Mission then made its way to the culminating event of the day—a visit to the White House. Once through the three point security check, delegates and staff were politely guided by numerous interns through the winding hallways to the South Court Auditorium where the flag-adorned stage provided the perfect backdrop for group photos before the start of the program. A hush descended as Matt Nosanchuk, Associate Director, White House Office of Public Engagement welcomed everyone and commenced the session.
Prem Kumar, Senior Director for Middle East and North Africa, National Security Staff, displayed his vast knowledge and expertise on matters pertaining to the Israel-Palestinian peace process, injecting humor into a serious and comprehensive dialogue, declaring that just one of the myriad conflicts in the Middle East would be “dayenu”. Questions raised by Agudath Israel delegates showcased the deep concern of the Orthodox Jewish community regarding the Israel- Palestinian conflict, the Iranian threat, and the crises in Egypt and Syria.
Next to speak was Melissa Rogers, Special Assistant to the President and Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Her sincerity and devotion was clear as she described her office’s ongoing efforts to coordinate financial and non- financial assistance on a range of federal social service programs, such as food and nutrition, healthcare, and disaster relief. Rabbi Abba Cohen commended Ms. Rogers for her efforts, describing her as “one of the most prominent scholars and advocates of religious liberty in our country”. He cited her office’s recent initiatives to ensure that yeshivos would not lose their lunch programs under recent USDA revisions.
Emotions ran high when Ira Forman, the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, shared his chilling insights into the alarming increase of anti Semitism abroad, and recent restrictions on religious practices such as bris milah and shechitah. Mr. Chaskel Bennet brought everyone to their feet with his impassioned and moving plea for Mr. Forman’s assistance in ending Yanky Ostreicher’s two year imprisonment in Bolivia. “I beg you from the bottom of my heart; please use your office to save this American citizen right now!” Mr. Forman was visibly moved by the appeal. Upon the completion of his presentation he earned a loud and lengthy round of appreciative applause.
The final address came from Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, who voiced her knowledge of Agudath Israel’s involvement with the DHS on many issues. The Secretary demonstrated her keen understanding and vast scope of involvement as she fielded numerous questions regarding security concerns, including that of our Yeshivos and shuls, from several members of the audience who thanked her for her years of service.
“This is Agudath Israel at its best,” enthused Rabbi Labish Becker, the organization’s Executive Director, as he reflected on the day. “Fulfilling our core, essential mission of representing Klal Yisroel to the governmental authorities and forming positive, mutually appreciated relationships with them to ensure their ongoing support on behalf of Eretz Yisrael, Jewish education, security and our ability to function as religious Jews.”
Shoshana Bernstein, SB Writing & Communications, is a freelance writer whose expertise includes research and analysis covering a wide range of relevant issues. She is a staff writer at Binah Magazine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Lefkowitz Young Leadership Initiative- A Vital Link in the Chain
One of the most pivotal and heartwarming components of the Mission to Washington was the participation of the younger generation. Known as the LLI, the initiative is helmed by Rabbi Shai Markowitz whose tireless efforts this past year, under the guidance of Rabbi Yehiel Kalish, have successfully brought new, young, vibrant, and committed askanim to the table–realizing the impassioned views of Rabbi Yisroel Lefkowitz a’h regarding the pressing need for younger representation.
Rabbi Markowitz observed, “The presence of more than 25 members of the LLI provides the Mission, and the organization itself, with a youthful energy, and more importantly, allows the concerns of the younger generation to be heard at the highest levels, adding to the overall success of the day.”
The importance of the Lefkowitz Young Leadership Initiative was underscored by Mr. Shlomo Werdiger, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, who closed the Senate luncheon session by sharing that the involvement of younger askanim gives the older askanim chizuk to go on. “The needs in Klal Yisroel are greater than ever before. Seeing the younger generation coming and caring, we know our efforts over the years are not for naught and the work we have done will be passed down and carried on.”
When asked for his motivation for taking part in the event, Yehoshua Krupenia from Cleveland commented that, “Today’s Mission is a way to gain a broader vantage of what Agudath Israel does on a national level and a gateway for further involvement.” Yitzchok Frank and Dovid Malcmacher, also from Ohio, concurred. “Whether at the local, state, or federal level, Agudath Israel provides a voice, trying to improve the lives of yidden. It’s important for frum Jews to come together and show politicians that we care and we need their help.” Both agreed on the need for more young people to get involved and planned to relay that message to their compatriots at home.
Yoily Edelstein summed up the day’s overall impact upon the LLI contingency succinctly, stating “Although it has been 90 plus years since the founding of Agudath Israel, evidently, the Agudah’s ideals of caring about the greater good of Klal Yisroel are still as relevant as ever.”
Celebrating Major Milestones in Orthodox Jewish Relations with Washington
While the Agudath Israel Washington Mission focused on the pressing issues of the day one of the recurring highlights of the Mission was the focus on major milestones of the Orthodox Jewish community’s historical relationship with the American government.
At the Treasury Department, the Orthodox group noted the historic role of US Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau in moving the FDR administration to recognize the atrocities being perpetrated against Jews in Eastern Europe. It was in October 1943 that some 400 Orthodox rabbis traveled to the White House to plead with the US Government to rescue Jews from the furnaces of Nazi Germany.
“While FDR refused to see the rabbis, who were reluctantly seen by Vice President Henry Wallace, it was Secretary Morgenthau at the urging of Agudath Israel and the Vaad Hatzalah, who successfully implored the Roosevelt Administration to rescue Jews, which resulted in the creation of the War Board,” said Menachem Lubinsky, a member of the Board of Trustees of Agudath Israel. “For this we are eternally grateful.”
In meetings with the leadership of the US House of Representatives, Agudath Israel leaders spoke of their long-standing relationship with Congress on issues relating to Jewish education. One leader pointed out: “It was 53 years ago that the late leader of Agudath Israel, Rabbi Morris Sherer, became the first Jew to testify before Congress in favor of constitutional aid to private schools, including yeshivas, an event considered so newsworthy that it was covered by the New York Times in its front page.
At the luncheon in the US Senate, an impressive parade of Senators and Congressmen joined the delegates in acknowledging yet another milestone in the history of Agudath Israel’s historic pre-eminent role in representing the growing Orthodox Jewish community in the US. “We are celebrating 25 years since Rabbi Moshe Sherer opened the Agudah Washington Office as the very first full-time Orthodox advocacy office in the nation’s capitol,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel.
“For the past 24 years,” Rabbi Zwiebel said, “Agudath Israel’s Washington Office has been (and will continue to be, G-d willing, for many more years to come) under the leadership of Rabbi Abba Cohen, who is one of the most well-known and best-respected Jewish representatives in D.C. Abba brings G-dliness and a sense of dignity to the halls of government – no small accomplishment in the rough and tumble arena of American politics.”
The Mission was preceded by a special internal meeting of Agudath Israel’s Board of Trustees, under the Directorship of Mr. Shlomo Werdiger, which took place on Wednesday in the venerable Mayflower Renaissance Hotel. Earlier in the day, the Board met with the leadership of the United States House of Representatives: Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Congressman Edward R. Royce, Chairman, Foreign Affairs Committee and Congressman John Kline, Chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee.