As one who constantly pores over news of Israel and keeps abreast of nuances and changes in Middle East politics, Lou Weiss found himself among good company at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this week.
“It was great to get to D.C. and to see 16,000 other people who are obsessing just like I am,” said the Squirrel Hill resident.
Noting that attendance was up from previous AIPAC conferences, Weiss, a 15-year veteran of the annual three-day event, believes that now, more than ever, people feel the need to lobby their representatives on issues critical to the Jewish state.
“I think people realize it’s a harried time for the Jews,” he said.
Weiss was one of about 80 Pittsburghers who attended the March 1 to 3 AIPAC conference, including a group of 30 college students and young adults who joined a delegation organized by the Hillel-Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh.
“This was the biggest delegation Hillel-JUC has ever taken to AIPAC,” noted Dan Marcus, Hillel-JUC’s executive director and CEO, adding that last year, the organization took just eight delegates.
Members of the Hillel-JUC contingent had the opportunity to hone their lobbying skills, Marcus said. Many lobbied U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle (D-District 14), while some lobbied representatives from their home districts.
“It’s an incredible skill set for students to learn: how to lobby for principles they believe in,” Marcus said. “And to learn to do that on Capitol Hill is powerful.”
Weiss, who is a member of the AIPAC National Council, organized a bloc of about 30 people to lobby Doyle. Their meeting with the congressman was all about Iran, Weiss said, and they urged him to sign the Royce-Engel letter, which calls on the Obama administration to engage congressional oversight on Iran sanctions relief.
“Mike [Doyle] is strong on this issue,” Weiss said.
Those attending the AIPAC conference represented a wide range of political and religious ideologies, said Gregg Roman, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council.
“It was good to see Americans from all different political stripes and colors, and Jews from every denomination, and from the left and the right, getting together under the same tent to show support of Israel,” Roman said.
Rabbi Daniel Yolkut, spiritual leader of Congregation Poale Zedeck, felt a sense of connectedness to the Jews and non-Jews present who joined together in support of the Jewish state.
“People who love Israel often feel beleaguered and adrift,” observed Yolkut, who had once before attended an AIPAC conference. “But there were all these people united together, including non-Jews, those from the African American community, and the Hispanic community, and the evangelical community. And all stripes of Jews. There’s an unbelievable energy being with so many people who have such a passion for Israel. It was enormously meaningful.”
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed AIPAC on Monday, “you really could feel the dynamism in the crowd,” Yolkut said.
Yolkut was also moved when four of the parents of the boys who were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists last summer — an event that precipitated Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza — addressed the crowd.
“It felt like the longest standing ovation of the entire convention,” Yolkut recounted. “They talked of faith, and of unity and of love, and what our support meant for them. That experience shakes you.”
Also compelling, said Yolkut, was an address by Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, at a luncheon arranged specifically for rabbis and cantors. Although Lankford does not hail from a home state with a large Jewish constituency, Yolkut was impressed with the senator’s connection to Israel stemming from his upbringing in a faith-centered household that was inspired by the narratives of the Bible concerning the land and people of Israel.
Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh sent a delegation of two students, Ezra Kraut and Mendel Blumberger, who were chosen to attend the conference based on essays they wrote. They were accompanied by Rabbi Yisroel Smith, assistant principal of the Boys’ High School, and Daniel Kraut, the school’s CEO.
“It was great to see the diversity of religious groups that felt the same way I do about the importance of a continued strong relationship between Israel and America,” Ezra Kraut said in an email. “I will never forget the feeling of pride I felt as a Jew watching the prime minister’s address delivered both at AIPAC and his speech before congress, which we watched from Congressman Doyle’s office.”
Blumberger was grateful for the opportunity “to express my love of America and Israel with so many other like-minded individuals,” he said in an email.
For many of the Pittsburghers at the conference, highlights included the speeches delivered by Netanyahu, first to AIPAC on Monday, then to Congress the following day.
Along with his wife, Amy, Weiss sat in the House of Representatives gallery for Netanyahu’s address to Congress, about six seats away from Elie Wiesel.
“It was electric,” said Weiss. “Netanyahu came in, and the Congress of the United States gave him a standing ovation. The gallery was full, and there was Netanyahu talking about the first Jewish state in 2,000 years. How can you not be moved by that?”
Although Netanyahu was focused on Israel and Iran in his speech, Weiss said, “It’s not hard to extrapolate from that the whole challenge of Islamic extremism to the rest of the world. It was an historic address from a man who has become, through his moral clarity and eloquence, the leading advocate for the Western world. … And the thought that he is from Israel and Jewish is great. He definitely speaks for me.”
In both Netanyahu speeches, as well as addresses from White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and comments from President Barack Obama in interviews, Israel and the United States consistently delivered a common, three-pronged message, Roman observed.
The relationship between the United States and Israel is unbreakable; both the United States and Israel are opposed to Iran getting a nuclear bomb; and the strength of all the fields of commonality between the two countries is greater than “the arguments over process,” Roman said.
He cautioned against giving too much credence to media pundits trying to stir the pot.
“The thing is, we have a lot more in common than we do apart,” Roman said of the long-standing allies. “If we pay attention to the pundits rather than the policy-makers, that would be a mistake.”
While at the conference, the entire Pittsburgh delegation, as well as alumni from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, were invited to a dinner hosted by Hillel-JUC and AIPAC. Both Marcus and Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International, addressed the 75 people at the dinner about Hillel’s work in helping young adults strengthen their Jewish identities and find meaning through Israel programs.Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.