Agudah Washington Mission Day 2: Orthodox Jewry’s Concerns Expressed in High Level Meetings with Cabinet Members and Congressional Leaders

Just half a century ago it might have seemed foolhardy to imagine scores of Orthodox Jewish men and women walking the halls of buildings bearing the names of political greats discussing their concerns with high ranking federal officials and congressional leaders. But as they spent a whirlwind Wednesday in the nation’s capital advocating for the needs of the Jewish community, delegates to this year’s Agudath Israel of America’s Washington Mission are continuing a long standing Agudah tradition of championing these causes and concerns at the highest levels of government.

Day two of the mission began with an inspiring address by the U.S. State Department’s recently appointed U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, the Honorable Elan Carr, who was introduced by Agudath Israel of California chairman Dr. Irving Lebovics. Special Envoy Carr spoke decisively about holistically combatting anti-Semitism throughout the world and the importance of Jewish unity in that particular battle, both in modern times and as far back as in the days of Mordechai and Esther in Persia.

The next stop on the Agudah advocacy train was at the U.S. Department of Education Lyndon Baines Johnson Building where the group met with Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development Jim Blew and Office of the Secretary Policy Advisor McKenzie Snow to discuss the new multi-billion dollar federal tax credit scholarship plan recently announced by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The meeting included comprehensive presentations and insightful questions about the proposal, with both Mr. Blew and Ms. Snow acknowledging Agudah Vice President for Government Affairs and Washington Director Rabbi Abba Cohen’s key role in shaping the legislation, especially as it pertains to the inclusion and wording of its religious liberty protections.

Moving on to the U.S. Department of Justice Robert F. Kennedy Building for the next morning meeting, delegates enjoyed a rare opportunity to discuss religious discrimination challenges with Attorney General William Barr, who was honored by the Agudah 27 years ago for defending the religious rights of Jewish residents of the Village of Airmont, N.Y., which deliberately modified its zoning laws to effectively bar all synagogues within its borders. Attorney General Barr, who has long been a strong advocate for religious freedom, expounded on his agency’s commitment to combatting religious discrimination and the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism seen in a growing number of zoning and land use cases. Also present at the meeting were Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary John Gore and Special Counsel Eric Treene who addressed some of the finer nuances of combatting anti-Semitism including ensuring security at places of worship in light of last October’s Tree of Life synagogue massacre and improving hate crimes reporting and prosecution.

Education Freedom Scholarships were on the menu as the delegates met with a prestigious group that included Secretary DeVos, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Representative Bradley Byrne (R-AL) for a congressional luncheon in the Senate’s Kennedy Caucus Room. Secretary DeVos expressed the administration’s strong support for the Education Freedom and Opportunity Scholarship Act, recently introduced in the Senate by Senator Cruz and in the House by Representative Byrne. Secretary DeVos, Senator Cruz and Representative Byrne discussed the salient features of the legislation which is strongly supported by Agudath Israel, and expressed their commitment to seeing it through to a successful vote, a move that could benefit children nationwide, including those attending Jewish schools. The wide-ranging discussion also emphasized the importance of providing religious school students with equitable educational opportunities and services, overturning state Blaine Amendments that often restrict those services, and the previous day’s decision by the Department that it would no longer prevent religious groups from acting as third party providers of federal education programs.

With delegates representing California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Texas, members of the mission spent their final hours on Capitol Hill split into groups led by the eight Agudah state directors. The delegates met with nearly 30 members of Congress or senior staffers in their offices, discussing a variety of issues including Israel, anti-BDS legislation, anti-Semitism, the scholarship tax credit bill, security grants, religious liberty and nonprofit tax burdens. Reflecting on the mission and its many accomplishments, organizers noted the importance of traveling to Washington D.C. to discuss community concerns and how rewarding it was to see lawmakers listening carefully to the many agenda items presented throughout the mission.

“It is heartening to see members of our community from literally across the country giving of their precious time to make a difference in lives everywhere,” said Rabbi Cohen. “It is equally heartening to see how eager and interested our elected officials are to meet with our delegates and hear their concerns and understand their issues. Agudath Israel’s efforts in bringing the two face to face, whether in Washington or in state capitals, inevitably leads to better advocacy, better lawmaking and ultimately better futures for our community’s families and institutions.”