The Pittsburgh delegation to this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., numbered 62, “by far the biggest Pittsburgh has ever sent,” Cheryl Moore said.
For many of the participants it was their first trip to an AIPAC conference, said Moore, chair of the organization’s Pittsburgh Council.
“Policy Conference is such an amazing experience that I am always shocked that our delegation isn’t 100,” she said. “No special recruiting this year. We always hope for more and it has gone up every year.”
She noted that all of this year’s regular attendees from Pittsburgh have already registered for next year.
Across the state line, West Virginia didn’t do so bad either, sending more than 40 participants — also a record.
In fact, that delegation was so big, according to Rabbi Victor Urecki of Congregation B’nai Jacob in Charleston, an AIPAC national board member, that U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) remarked how he never had a larger group visit his Washington office.
In all, some 13,000 people — Jew and non-Jew, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative — attended this year’s conference. That number included some 2,000 college students, of whom 240 were student body presidents — all representing a segment of society where pro- and anti-Israel forces are competing.
Gordon Lauderback, student government board president of the University of Pittsburgh, was making his first trip to an AIPAC Policy Conference.
“My biggest goal going in was educating myself on the topics,” said Lauderback, a 22-year-old senior from Chester County.
“I just made a trip to Israel over the winter break, so it was a topic that was on my mind,” said Lauderback, who spoke for himself and not the Pitt student government, “so my goal was to educate myself on the initiatives of AIPAC and let my own mind form its opinions.”
Perhaps the single biggest accomplishment of this year’s conference came on the day the statewide delegations ascended Capitol Hill to lobby their congressional delegations. For the first time in conference history, all 535 members of Congress had a sit-down meeting with an AIPAC delegation, according to Moore.
Pittsburgh delegates met as one with Sens. Robert P. Casey (D) and Pat Toomey (R), then broke up for separate sessions with U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle (D-Swissvale), Tim Murphy (R-Upper St. Clair), Mike Kelly (R-Butler) and Keith Rothfus (R-Sewickley).
The Pittsburgh delegation Policy Conference dinner Sunday night had about 40 people registered but the room filled up with when over 50 — most of the delegation — showed up. In addition to the Pittsburgh people, the dinner also included Yaron Sideman, Israeli Consul General, Philadelphia; Murphy; Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal; Bari Weiss, Tablet; and Elliot Chodoff, Israeli political and military analyst and one of the tour guides from the Federation Mega Mission this past summer.
In addition, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) was on hand touting a bill she is co-sponsoring with U.S. Rep. Ted Deutsch (D-Fla.) that would “enhance” Israel’s relationship with the United States culturally, politically and militarily. A similar bill is pending in the Senate.
The U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013 would:
• Declare Israel to be a major strategic partner of the United States;
• Authorize the president to carry out U.S.–Israel cooperative activities and promote cooperation in the fields of energy, water, homeland security, agriculture, and alternative fuel technologies;
• Urge the president to support the procurement, maintenance and enhancement of the Iron Dome defense system, Arrow 2, Arrow 3 and David’s Sling; and
• Call on the United States to take steps to help Israel become a Visa Waiver country, which would allow Israelis to travel to the United States without a visa for stays of 90 days or less, provided they meet all requirements.
Even though it’s an off-election year, many politicians still attended, including Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke live, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who addressed the conference via satellite.
Other American and Israeli leaders on hand were former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), to name a few.
While politics was a major topic at this year’s conference — as always — Moore lauded its focus on Israeli innovation, showcasing advances in the fields of technology, medicine and culture.
One of the most exciting examples of this focus was an Israeli inventor — a quadriplegic named Amit Goffer — who designed a device that enabled paraplegics to walk. Goffer appeared at the conference, as did a user of his invention, a paraplegic from Bucks County, who walked on to the stage of a plenary at the Washington Convention Center.
An entire floor of the convention center was set up as “AIPAC Village,” where other Israeli innovations were on display.
For Billy Rudolph, this was his first AIPAC Policy Conference.
“What really inspired me was that 13,000 people there from all across the spectrum of the Jewish world, were all on the same page as far as their support for Israel,” Rudolph said. “It was a beautiful thing.”
Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, echoed that sentiment.
“I did feel a greater sense of bipartisan ship,” he said. “There wasn’t a plenary where you didn’t have a Democratic and Republican perspective. It was much more of a love fest. The beauty of AIPAC is it unites Republicans, Democrats, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox; we all share the same ideas.”
From West Virginia, Urecki appeared in a plenary video about his state and its support for Israel. He said his delegation, which was just a handful at past conferences, has increased several fold this year including student body presidents from Glenville State College and the University of Charleston.
“We’re such a small community [that] we can form relationships and friendships with every single member of our congressional delegation,” Urecki said. “We have engaged our delegation on real important pro-Israel legislation, making them understand what it is and why it’s important.”
That includes U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, (D-Beckley) one of the few Arab-Americans in Congress, who spent an hour with the West Virginia delegation.
“He believes in a strong U.S.-Israel relationship,” Urecki said.
Jack Mostow, a research professor at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, was making his third trip to an AIPAC Policy Conference, where this time, his daughter, Melody, an Indiana University AIPAC activist and member of the National Board, was a panelist for the breakout session titled “Israel on Campus: Creating Tomorrow’s Leaders.”
Needless to say, Mostow, and his wife, Janet, who was at her second conference, sat in on that session.
“They’re proactive; they don’t waste time reacting to things,” Mostow said of AIPAC. “They invest their time in doing things that will help; educating future leaders is one of those things.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)