Attendees of the Orthodox Union Leadership Mission to Washington made clear to the politicians their concerns over ongoing Iran nuclear negotiations and domestic security funding for Jewish institutions.
More than 120 lay leaders and modern Orthodox clergy from nine states gathered on Capitol Hill June 3 for a packed day of meetings with members of Congress and briefings from foreign ambassadors and the White House.
According to organizers, the majority of the OU Pennsylvania delegation hailed from the Philadelphia metropolitan area and one participant journeyed to D.C. from Harrisburg, but none came from Pittsburgh.
Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer kicked off the day with a briefing on Iran. He reiterated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position that Iran cannot be trusted and will continue to develop ballistic missiles.
“There is only one true existential threat to Israel — the Iranian regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons,” said Dermer.
His message was carried by the delegates who echoed the OU’s position that no deal is preferable to a bad deal.
Security at home was a source of major concern. Participants lobbied to have the funding for the Urban Area Security Initiative Non-Profit Security Grant Program raised to $25 million. The program is currently funded at $13 million.
In a letter sent in April to the leading members of the House Subcommittee on Homeland Security, Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Peter King (R-N.Y.) and others cited the shooting at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, a 2011 string of anti-Semitic hate crimes targeting synagogues in northern New Jersey and the murder of a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as reasons to increase funding.
Rabbi Etan Mintz of B’nai Israel Congregation in Baltimore said, “It’s a small bill, but it’s something that’s been critical for our local synagogues and nonprofits. We take all the steps to maintain the security of our synagogues.”
His sentiments were echoed by Elliot Holtz, chair of the Foundation for Jewish Day Schools. “[The grants] are extremely important to neighborhoods like Philadelphia which is mainly urban with many of our schools and synagogues unprotected by other resources. They’re on highways, in dense neighborhoods, so these funds have been important for improvements [that] harden the buildings.
“You can feel the difference in the community to those institutions that have applied and successfully received a grant,” Holtz added. “As we see attacks around the world by individuals and small numbers of people, these deterrents are important to protecting our communities.”
Precisely for the reasons Holtz outlined, delegates from Cherry Hill, N.J., pressed their members of Congress to help reverse a decision made by the Urban Area Working Group for Philadelphia that declared the southern New Jersey institutions ineligible to have grants considered for the upcoming year. South Jersey, as the area is known, falls as part of Metropolitan Statistical Area for Philadelphia.
According to Alise Panitch and Uri Halle, who have helped lead the efforts to craft grant applications for Jewish day schools and institutions in their region, they were notified only days before the deadline.
Without the grants, the Jewish institutions in southern New Jersey will continue to “prioritize and seek local funding as we have year by year,” said Panitch. “There are propertywide things we’d like to accomplish that [a grant would help facilitate].”
OU delegates further lobbied on behalf of the Nonprofit Energy Efficiency Act, introduced in the Senate by Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and in the House by Reps. Robert Dold (R-Ill.) and Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.). Under the proposed legislation, nonprofits could apply for grants up to 50 percent of the total cost of energy efficiency programs, up to $200,000, taken from $50 million that would be set aside for fiscal years 2016 to 2020.
Those grants are particularly important for non-profits as such organizations are not eligible for tax credits under the law, said Sam Melamed, co-chair of OU Advocacy and a Silver Spring resident.
He called the day of lobbying “clearly effective,” and he was pleased to see that Congress holds the OU in “high regard.”
Melamed, Edwin Zaghi, Rabbi Nissan Antine of Congregation Beth Sholom and Talmud Torah in Potomac and Karen Paikin Barall, Mid-Atlantic director at the OU also attended the leadership mission, along with a large delegation from Kemp Mill Synagogue.
The OU is part of a coalition, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Jewish Federations of North America, in calling for the government to help nonprofits afford energy efficient facility upgrades.
Following their lobbying sessions, the attendees gathered for a luncheon in the Senate.
“We must make sure, by any means necessary, that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). His comments were in line with the dozen or so senators at the afternoon luncheon, including Maryland Democratic stalwart, Barbara Mikulski.
Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) were well received for their work on the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. Cardin, who himself belongs to the modern Orthodox synagogue Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Baltimore, spoke out against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and made reference to the amendment he authored in the Senate that would discourage European trading partners from engaging in boycotts of Israel and Israeli controlled territories.
“I would say almost all the members of Congress, in most cases, were on the same page as our delegates,” said Nathan J. Diament, executive director of the OU Advocacy Center. “Both Republicans and Democrats we met with had serious concerns about the Iran nuclear issue. They’re waiting to see what the final terms of the deal are, if a deal does get concluded.”
The OU delegation received a briefing from White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who mostly reiterated the administration’s position regarding ongoing nuclear agreement talks with Iran and world powers. But McDonough’s remarks were not well-received by everyone in attendance.
Marc Hess of Cherry Hill described McDonough’s presentation as “weak.”
“[McDonough] said that Iran is very concerned about what the U.S. thinks … but that’s absurd,” said Hess, a veteran who spent time in Afghanistan and Iraq with the Department of Defense. “That Iran is careful around the U.S. or intimidated by U.S. power is nonsense.”
When asked if the current administration is too harsh on Israel, several OU members reported that McDonough replied that yes, the U.S. holds Israel to a higher standard than other countries, but he asserted that Israel holds the United States to a higher standard.
That comment rankled Hess. “When Israel takes a view on U.S. policy it’s only on major things. The U.S. nitpicks at Israel down to [what ministerial posts are won],” said Hess.
French Ambassador to the U.S. Gerard Araud closed out the day with a briefing on how his country is implementing new tools to fight anti-Semitism. In particular, France is working with Internet providers to remove anti-Semitic content from websites, he told the attendees.
“The Internet is changing the way hate is spread,” Araud said. “Anti-Semitism is not a French problem nor a European problem. It’s a global problem that requires a global strategy.”
Melissa Apter writes for Washington Jewish Week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.