The effort in the 117th Congress to permanently extend “daylight saving time” (DST) came to a sputtering end, as the House of Representatives refused to act on the measure. This was due, in large part, by the efforts of Agudath Israel of America, which played a leading role in making known the unique and disruptive challenges permanent DST would present to the Orthodox Jewish community, thereby stunting its progress on Capitol Hill.
“It was an intensive few months of working behind-the-scenes on this issue, which is so fraught with problems for the religious, economic and family life of the Orthodox Jewish community,” noted Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel’s Vice President for Government Affairs and Washington Director. “After Senate sponsors quietly used a procedural maneuver to pass a bill making DST permanent, there was tremendous pressure to quickly push the bill through the House. We immediately went into action and were successful in helping to shut it down during the critical weeks and months that followed.”
The centerpiece of Agudath Israel’s advocacy was a legislative memorandum widely circulated on Capitol Hill presenting the substantive Orthodox community concerns, including a survey of sunrise time in cities across the country under permanent DST and an analysis by Rabbi Dovid Heber, shlita, of Baltimore, an authority on the luach and zmanim. Agudath Israel also mobilized national and local Orthodox rabbonim, mechanchim and organizations, as well as its regional offices around the country, and enlisted their assistance in reaching out to local representatives.
Two primary concerns were brought to the legislators’ attention.
The first related to an unintended consequence the change in DST would have on a fundamental aspect of Jewish religious life – morning davening. Under halacha, tefillas shacharis, and the mitzvos associated with it, are regulated according to solar positioning in the sky and are to be performed no earlier (or later) than at certain specified times. Shul schedules are set up in line with those times. With a change in DST, and the subsequent later sunrise, the times for davening and its accompanying mitzvos will be altered –which, in turn, will undermine their proper observance, discourage shul attendance, and result in late arrival for work.
“We heard from numerous rabbonim around the country about how this change would completely disrupt daily davening schedules, putting minyanim and tefilah b’tzibbur in jeopardy,” according to Rabbi Cohen. “They were stunned by our research, which indicated that in some cities with Orthodox populations, for varying amounts of time, sunrise could be after 8:00 AM, in other cities after 9:00 AM — times that were incompatible with shul and work schedules.”
Agudath Israel was also contacted by many Orthodox Jewish employees, who would be forced to forgo delayed tefilla b’tzibbur and, because of later times even for private davening, were still not certain that they could arrive at their workplaces on time. The prospect of asking their employers to arrive late or allowing them to interrupt their mid-morning work with davening, was one they feared would create a tense and tenuous employment relationship. Observance and accommodation of Shabbos and yom tov have become familiar in the workplace; time off for davening – perhaps over a course of weeks — is unknown.
As a representative of the spectrum of yeshivas and Jewish day schools, Agudath Israel’s other primary concern centered around children walking, carpooling or taking the bus to school in the pre-sunrise darkness and the increased risk of accidents and injuries that could result. Indeed, during the Arab oil embargo in early 1970s, when a two-year-long DST was attempted, the experiment was cut short to less than a year due to the public outcry over numerous reported incidents of children being killed, injured and assaulted as they traveled to school in the pitch-black streets.
The alternative would be for these Jewish schools – which often include morning davening – to begin the school day at a much later hour, a detrimental change decried by many yeshiva principals and educators, as well as parents.
Agudath Israel’s advocacy on the issue was consistent with a 1971 teshuva to then-Agudath Israel President Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z’l, penned by the Horav Hagaon R’ Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, who addressed the issue during an earlier legislative attempt to make DST permanent. Pointing out the difficulties regarding proper davening facing those who go to work, Rabbi Feinstein wrote that it is clear that we must fight against such a bill with every means of advocacy – and that it constitutes a “gezeirah mamash al hatefila lirai Hashem Yisborach.”
Ultimately, the multi-pronged effort by Agudath Israel, and opposition by others, were successful in slowing down and eventually ending further action in the House. Representative Frank Pallone, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, stated that the legislation would not proceed without a full airing of the various issues. And, as the months passed, Chairman Pallone and others on the committee continued to hear from Agudath Israel and its allies, leading the Chairman to conclude that there was no consensus in the House as to whether to keep the status quo or to go to either permanent standard or daylight saving time.
This issue hearkens back to other times that the Agudah has fought against such legislation. Aside from the 1970s, in 2005, as part of the Energy Policy Act, DST would have been extended by two months. Agudah and allies were successful in paring that down to a four-week extension, which, based on the calendar, would have had a minimal effect on Orthodox Jewish life.
Rabbi Cohen expressed relief at the House’s decision not to take up the bill. “We hope the issue has been put to rest,” he said, “but we will continue to monitor the legislative docket and, if necessary, let our voice be heard, as there is much at stake here in regard to Orthodox Jewish life.”