From Darkness to the White House

“There was a shooting.” Those were the first words I heard when I walked through the front door Saturday night upon my return from synagogue. Many of you surely had similar experiences. As the shocking details of the attack in the Chabad of Poway emerged (see our statement here), we initially felt a cloud of darkness. However, throughout the week we were uplifted by the inspiring words and actions of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein culminating in the White House Rose Garden. Celebrating the National Day of Prayer yesterday, the country watched the President denounce anti-Semitism, welcome Rabbi Goldstein (and the two congregants who confronted the terrorist) and later, my colleague Rabbi Abba Cohen, who delivered a closing benediction.

President Donald Trump greeting Rabbi Abba Cohen and thanking him for his words

So what do we do now? Rabbi Avi Schnall of our New Jersey office penned a thoughtful op-ed on how to react in the face of rising anti-Semitism, while Rabbi Moshe Matz opened the Florida Senate in prayer just before lawmakers unanimously passed a bill related to anti-Semitism in schools. In addition to responding to darkness with light, we must also take steps to secure our schools and houses of worship. In addition to the federal Non Profit Security Grant (the application deadline is fast approaching – see here for more information about the changes to the program), some states have added state funding for security. Agudath Israel welcomed California Governor Newsome’s announcement of an additional $15 million for state nonprofit security grants. During our Agudah mission to Sacramento just a few months ago, we spent much of the time discussing the need for an increase in security funding with many members of the Legislature and the governor’s staff.

Agudath Israel delegation meeting with California Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel, Vice Chair of the Jewish Caucus

While Rabbi Cohen was sitting at the dinner table with the President and First Lady at the White House with other faith leaders and the next day at the Rose Garden prayer event, I was with Rabbi Yitz Frank, Rabbi Shlomo Soroka and a several Agudah lay leaders at American Federation for Children’s (AFC) 10th annual school choice policy summit.  Aside from hearing from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and meeting with hundreds of school choice advocates and policy makers, the event celebrated the passage of recent school choice bills in Florida (see below) and Tennessee. Agudah is proud of the supporting role it played, working with lawmakers, community members, and coalition partners. 

Agudath Israel leaders with U.S. Secretary of Education, Secretary DeVos

One of the lessons we learned from Tennessee is that it often takes many years for policy proposals to become law. I met Tennessee State Senator Brian Kelsey at the very first AFC summit where we discussed his voucher proposal and the Jewish community he represents in Memphis. After many years of trying different versions of school choice, it was appropriate that Senator Kelsey was the author of the conference committee report for the Education Savings Account bill that was adopted by both chambers.  Governor Bill Lee championed the bill from the beginning and was helped by leaders in the House and Senate, while AFC’s Tennessee affiliate led the grassroots and advocacy effort. Several compromises were made during the last few days, but ultimately, we hope the program will help thousands of Tennessee children.

Another policy that took many years to get passed the draft stage was the recently released final rule on “compensatory time for religious observance” for federal employees. Rabbi Abba Cohen played a leadership role in working on this issue relentlessly for the last fifteen years and was gratified when the Trump administration, as part of its focus on religious freedom, issued the final regulations. The regulation will strengthen and broaden the ability of federal employees to take off time for shmiras Shabbos and Yom Tov. The new regulation will hopefully be a model for other religious protections on the federal and state levels. President Trump highlighted the issue in his remarks during the National Day of Prayer.

Another lesson we’ve learned is that passing legislation or issuing regulations doesn’t  solve the problem unless implementation is handled correctly. Recently, Agudah convened a meeting with city officials and special education school leaders to discuss implementation issues related to special education regulations  negotiated in 2014.

Congratulations to Maryland’s new House Speaker.

ICYMI: A few days before Passover, Fox News published a thought provoking piece by our  director of public affairs Rabbi Avi Shafran about the growth of the Orthodox Jewish community in the US and Israel and its implications.

Lastly, this past month we focused on our end-of-life advocacy division, Chayim Aruchim, and I encourage you to watch a short video highlighting how their work impacts the community.

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Photos: 56th Annual National Siyum Mishnayos of Pirchei Agudas Yisroel al shem harav Yehoshua Silbemintz zt"l