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PHOTOS – Report on Agudath Israel of America Leadership Mission to Washington


The tragic confirmation of the deaths of kidnapped Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and El¬dad Regev and the receipt of their bodies in a “prisoner swap” with the terrorist militia Hezbbollah cast a heavy shadow on Agudath Israel of America’s 2008 National Leadership Mission to Washington last Wednesday, July 16, occupying the attention of both delegates and several of the government officials with whom they met.

(Click HERE for photos taken by FRank Storch in Washington DC) The sad news was received in Washington by delegates already arrived by Wednesday morning and by others on their way to the city on buses that left Brooklyn and Lakewood as early as 5:30 am that day.  After Shacharis minyanim were completed on the buses, the sad news spread.  Compounding the sorrow was the fact that the five prisoners freed by the Israelis in exchange for the remains of the two martyred soldiers were not only very much alive but included a vicious killer who was accorded a hero’s welcome upon his release and return to Lebanon.

Many of the participants in the mission had already arrived the previous night, and gathered for a pre-mission dinner at which they heard words of encouragement and direction from Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Rosh HaYeshiva, Yeshivas Ner Yisroel (Baltimore).  The Rosh HaYeshiva articulated a daas Torah perspective on governmental advocacy and true Jewish leadership, which set the tone for the following day’s proceedings.

Sparring About Energy, Warning About Iran

Wednesday began for the delegates at the House of Representatives, where they met with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), House Education and Labor Committee Ranking Republican Buck McKeon (R-CA) and Republican Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA).

The session was opened by Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudath Israel’s executive vice president for government and public affairs, who welcomed the delegates and noted the remarkable diversity, in background, geography and age, of the crowd – a record one for an Agudath Israel mission.   He then introduced Rabbi Yehiel Kalish, Agudath Israel’s national director of government affairs, who chaired the program.

Mr. Hoyer was the first to begin his remarks by expressing sorrow at the day’s events in Israel.  “This is a sad day,” he said, “but we must not allow terror to undermine Israel.”

Reviewing the status of a number of bills before Congress and issues facing the American legislature, Mr. Hoyer had high praise for Agudath Israel for upholding “the values that make our country great.”

Mr. McKeon, the next Representative to address the group, took issue with some of Mr. Hoyer’s positions, in particular the Majority Leader’s omission of opening up American coastal and Arctic oil drilling.  He also spoke forcefully about school choice and bemoaned what he contended was a lack of accomplishment in the Democrat-controlled Congress.

The highest ranking Jewish member of the House, Mr. Cantor, also reiterated the need to develop new energy resources and addressed the situation in Iraq, which he said had shown much, if fragile, success of late.  Regarding Iran, he asserted that “nice talk isn’t going to turn” people like that country’s president “around.”  Jews, Mr. Cantor went on, know to take evil people’s statements seriously.  He also expressed his gratitude that the Agudath Israel mission had been undertaken – “It’s really important that you’re here” – and called the upcoming presidential election “the most significant one for Israel since 1948.”

A Good Joke, A Moving Personal Account

The other side of Capitol Hill was the next stop for the Agudath Israel delegates, where they participated in a luncheon in the Senate Caucus Room.  A number of Senators and Congressmen addressed the large group at that time.

First was Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) of Maryland, who took issue with those who call him a hero of the Jewish community, contending instead that he is, rather, a “product of the Jewish community.”  He spoke of Talmud classes he had attended and joked that one of them helped him reject former Louisiana Representative Jimmy Hayes’ switch to the Republican Party in 1995.  “His mother,” Mr. Cardin explained, “was a Democrat.”

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) spoke of the economic squeeze he said he hoped would bring Iran’s leaders to their senses.  Mr. Schumer contended that the Iranian populace holds the seeds of change and has an appreciation of things American – and appreciation that is lacking, to say the least, among that country’s current leadership.

The next to address the luncheon gathering was Senator Sam Brownback(R-Kansas), who had warm words for Agudath Israel, which he characterized as “standing up for traditional values.”  Quoting the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, he contended that “culture is more important than government,” and stressed how vital it is that Americans realize that human beings are created “in the image of G-d.” so that they can appreciate the import of traditional values and faith in their lives and the life of the nation.

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), then approached the microphone.  Recalling his 80 trips to Israel, he spoke eloquently about the security of the Jewish State, and reassured his listeners that, in his opinion, “Israel is safe” and that it is a misconception that Israel needs the United States.  “The United States,” he contended, “needs Israel.”

Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who has served in the Senate since 1962, began his remarks to the delegation with “Aloha and Shalom” – and his words soared upwards from there.  He told the crowd how, as a World War II veteran recuperating from injuries in a New Jersey hospital after the war, his roommate described the scene of carnage at a liberated concentration camp.  Mr. Inouye, shocked at the description of “bodies piled up like cordwood,” asked his roommate what crimes the inmates had committed to deserve such punishment.  The reply was that they had done nothing – they were just Jews, and “people don’t like Jews.”   At that point, the Hawaiian serviceman determined to study Jewish history, which he discovered to be “amazing.”

“Where are the Babylonians?” Mr. Inouye asked.  “The Jews are here.”

The Senator from Hawaii then recounted his work on behalf of Israel – as a young man he accepted a joking offer to sell Israel bonds, he recounted, and became his own first customer – and addressed the Iranian situation.  He also noted that the Senate and House had approved, and President Bush signed, a foreign aid bill that will increase aid to Israel to $2.55 billion.  And, he said, “as far as I’m concerned, that’s not enough.”

Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), a relative newcomer to Washington – he was elected to the Senate in 2006 – was next to address the Agudath Israel group.  His remarks were centered on Iran, which he said must continue to be isolated and pressured by the world community.  It is an issue, he contended, for America no less than Israel.  A Catholic, Mr. Casey recounted a trip he took to Israel which he described as transformative to his view of the world.

Representative John Sarbanes (D-MD), who represents much of Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish community, was next at the podium.  He too recounted a visit to Israel – two, in fact; and stressed what he perceived to be a change in the attitude of the country’s citizenry.  In 1985, he recalled, Israelis still seemed to consider their country “an experiment.”  But on his most recent visit to Israel two years ago, despite all the challenges and threats facing the Jewish State, he said he felt Israelis considered their nation secure.  Mr. Sarbanes also expressed appreciation for Agudath
Israel’s advocacy on a number of issues, in particular it advocacy on behalf of children and education.

The final luncheon speaker was Representative Anthony Wiener (D-NY).  He recalled receiving instruction in politics from Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, and spoke of the importance of Homeland Security grants to Jewish institutions and schools.  He contended that the grants, which have not always been forthcoming in a timely and effective manner, must become easier to access.  He further pledged to do what he could to ensure that the funds appropriated for such purposes be increased not decreased. 

Mr. Weiner addressed the issue of insurance coverage for infertility treatments, an issue of deep concern to the Orthodox Jewish community.  He also decried American aid offered to Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority and others without accompanying demands that those countries or entities demonstrate their commitment to alliance with America and democratic values in return.

Also present at the luncheon were two other members of the House, Representatives, Yvette Clarke (D-NY), whose district includes Crown Heights and other parts of Brooklyn; and Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL), who is one of the co-chairs of Senator Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign.

Next Stop: White House

The White House was the Agudath Israel mission’s next stop.  The first presentation at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building was made by Chief Domestic Policy Advisor Karl Zinsmeister, who addressed school choice, beginning by remarking from his personal experience how different children are, even when raised by the same parents.  The educational implications of that observation, he contended, and the examples of a number of other countries, comprise a strong argument for the United States to more determinedly support school choice.  Fully four out of 10 American families, he said, citing a poll, already use one or another form of nonpublic education for at least one of their children.  Should not government, he asked, respect those parents’ choice and help them shoulder the attendant financial burdens in any way it can?

Amanda Farris, deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, later picked up that theme, stressing another aspect: the need for government to strengthen equitable participation for private schools in laws to assist schoolchildren and schools.  Although the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind initiative is likely not on the immediate horizon, she said, laying the public-policy groundwork for ensuring that all schools and students are able to access benefits on an equal basis should be ongoing even now.  Ms. Farris also expressed special appreciation for Rabbi Zwiebel’s participation in an Education Summit convened by President Bush this past April.

Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams also addressed the delegates at the White House, focusing on the Middle East “peace process,” the war on terror and the Iranian threat.

Before his presentation, the details of which were requested by an Administration representative to be kept confidential, Mr. Abrams also remarked on the day’s sad events.  “It is not a happy day,” he said, noting not only the confirmation of the Israeli soldiers’ deaths but the release and reception of a murderer of innocents as a hero in Lebanon.  He took heart, though, he said, at the telling contrast of values between the determination of one side to have fallen soldiers’ remains returned to their families and the celebration, on the other, of murderers and murder.

And The Race Is On

The final event of the long but productive day was a dinner at the Library of Congress, at which surrogates for each of the Presidential candidates – chosen by the candidates themselves, as they were both on the campaign trail away from Washington – presented the cases for their respective choices.

Advocating for Senator John McCain was Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), who was introduced by Agudath Israel Washington Office Director and Counsel Rabbi Abba Cohen.  Rabbi Cohen noted how, invariably, groups of Jewish students who were visiting Washington and came to his office would ask whether he actually “knows Senator Lieberman.”  That, said Rabbi Cohen, was a tribute to the pride the Senator, who is a Shomer Shabbos Jew and has been called “the conscience of the Senate,” has brought to the Jewish community.

Mr. Lieberman began with warm words of praise for Rabbi Cohen and Rabbi Zwiebel, with both of whom he has worked for many years on many issues.  He also recalled his interactions with Rabbi Sherer, z”l, and the informal “summer poll results” the late Agudath Israel president, who spent a few days each summer in Connecticut, would present the Senator – results gleaned from Rabbi Sherer’s informal conversations with “checkout clerks and gas station attendants” – citizens of the state he would meet over the course of the day.

He then turned to the candidacy of Senator McCain, asserting that the Republican has invaluable life experience “in both war and peace,” and will thus be prepared to act as Commander in Chief “from day one.”  Mr. Lieberman also asserted that Mr. McCain has shown himself able to overcome partisanship, which Mr. Lieberman (who could have cited his personal political experience) called a major obstacle to progress in Congress.  “We’re all,” he said, “Americans first.”

He went on to call the Arizona Senator “a restless reformer,” praised his pro-school choice position and predicted that Mr. McCain will be a President “whom our allies will like and trust, and our enemies will fear.”

Representing Democratic contender Senator Barack Obama was Representative Anthony Weiner, making his second appearance before the Agudath Israel delegates that day.  He was introduced by Agudath Israel’s Chairman of the Board, Rabbi Gedaliah Weinberger, who praised the Representative for being called to task by The New York Times for helping ensure funding, even in the face of criticism from some circles, for social service projects critically important to the community.

Mr. Weiner made an impassioned case for Mr. Obama’s candidacy, asserting that the situation in Iraq prevents the United States from being able to effectively address the larger threat to Israel and the rest of the civilized world presented by Iran’s leaders.  “Our national interest,” he said, is to “get out of the way” in Iraq, even though there will certainly be bloodshed among the various groups in that country whenever American troops are pulled out.

Mr. Weiner also touted Mr. Obama’s support for the idea of allowing faith-based organizations to receive government funds to provide social services to those who need them.  Although, as he noted, Mr. Obama has insisted that such groups be bound by anti-discrimination laws, he hailed Mr. Obama’s stance on the issue the “right idea.”

The Leadership Mission chairman was Professor Larry Katz of Baltimore; serving as co-chairman was Mr. Avromi Schonfeld.  In conjunction with the Leadership Mission, a 25-page National Public Policy Position Paper was published by Agudath Israel, and copies were distributed to delegates and government officials.  The position paper covers Agudath Israel’s stances on religious and civil rights; religious schools and other faith-based institutions; social, moral and family issues; and international issues and homeland security.

After the dinner, delegates boarded the buses, trains and planes that would return them to their homes.  Although most had not attended the previous night’s meeting addressed by Rabbi Feldman, the Rosh HaYeshiva’s words seemed to have somehow found their way into their minds.  As their questions and interactions with members of Congress and Administration officials clearly showed, they had taken the opportunity to make a shtadlonus hishtadlus seriously indeed.

Photos will be uploaded shortly at

(YWN Desk – NYC)

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