By Shoshana Bernstein
The depth and breadth of Agudath Israel of America’s reach was clearly illustrated on Thursday, July 25, when over 200 delegates from across the United States and Canada came together in Agudath Israel’s highly impressive and impactful National Leadership Mission to Washington. The thrilling opportunity to interact with high-ranking government leaders was further elevated with the unified involvement of so many informed, 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 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.”
The Treasury Department: Money On Our Minds
First on the agenda was a visit to the Department of the Treasury. Anticipation ran high as participants 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. 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 breached through governmental subsidies for 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, “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 longtime relationship with Agudath Israel includes his championing of school choice and religious liberty protections, particularly in the workplace; 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 Iranian nuclear threat and its negative impact on the region.
Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) stressed the nonnegotiable baseline recognition of the right of Israel to exist, particularly at a time when Middle East negotiations are being restarted; and Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) spoke about the Jewish community and religious values, pointing out, “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.
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 of the White House Office of Public Engagement, welcomed everyone and began 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 were clear as she described her office’s ongoing efforts to coordinate 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 lengthy round of 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 Yisrael 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.” v
Shoshana Bernstein, SB Writing & Communications, is a freelance writer whose expertise includes research and analysis of a wide range of issues. She is a staff writer at Binah Magazine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.