By Jane Ramsey, Executive Director, JCUA
And Irene Lehrer Sandalow, Director of Strategy and Jewish Affairs, JCUA
Ten JCUA leaders traveled to Washington, D.C. on July 28 to meet with congressional leaders and members of the White House administration as part of a two-day trip organized by the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, a group of 21 nonprofit organizations promoting economic and social justice as a core tenet of Jewish life.
Included in the JCUA delegation were: Rabbi Bruce Elder, Steve and Gerry Keen, Nikki Stein, Ira Azulay, Rabbi Joshua Salter, Leah Shefsky, Rabbi Michael Siegel, Irene Lehrer Sandalow and Jane Ramsey.
That Thursday JCUA, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism coordinated meetings with congressional leaders and 40 Roundtable members. The meetings began with Reva Price, advisor to Rep. Nancy Pelosi. Price has a long history working in the Jewish community and provided us with an insider’s perspective on how to advance social justice issues on our agenda.
She shared the importance of the faith community in influencing the immigration debate, overcoming people’s fear of the “stranger,” and combating xenophobia. To win on immigration, Price encouraged us to create alliances with conservatives and the business community. She also explained that traditional advocacy tactics work and that calling and meeting with our congressional leaders makes a difference. “Take it to the public!” said Price, quoting Lincoln.
We also met with staff from both Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Dick Durbin’s office. They were hopeful that immigration is still an issue where we can make a difference.
Joseph Zogby, counsel to Sen. Durbin on the Senate Judiciary Committee, shared with us the launch of Dream Shabbat 2011 where diverse communities of faith around the country will help spread understanding of the DREAM Act and build support for DREAM students.
It was very empowering to hear from Jewish congressional leaders whose social justice values are front and center as to why they are in office. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Rep. Henry Waxman, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz expressed their distress regarding the current budget discussion, which they believe challenges our values in a profound way.
There was a real sense of exhaustion and urgency about the consequences if we fail to protect the most vulnerable in our society through the drastic budget cuts. Rep. Schakowsky started her comments by quoting Psalm 71:9: “Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone.” “People will die,” said Schakowsky, if we let them make deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid. “They are shifting the healthcare costs from the government on the backs of the poor and elderly,” she said.
Rep. Waxman emphasized the importance of compromise and finding common ground. Sen. Mark Begich from Alaska encouraged us to flood caucus and town hall meetings of our congressional leaders in August when they are back at home. He urged us to remind them that they have constituents at home who rely on them to protect their interests.
While we did not get an opportunity to hear from leaders who do not share our agenda (though we invited them to meet with us and JCUA leaders Steve Keen and Ira Azulay met with staff from Sen. Kirk’s office), it was important for our friends in Congress to hear that there is a powerful and vocal group of Jewish social justice leaders who share their values and are grateful for their leadership. Moreover, it was very helpful for us as community activists to hear insider perspectives on what tactics and strategies work.
Coming out of these meetings, three things are clear to us:
1) Members of Congress need to hear from us more often and more loudly.
2) The upcoming 2012 elections are going to be definitive for the future of much of our social justice agenda.
3) We need to find non-traditional allies to win on our issues.
Progress is possible and we cannot get discouraged by the current discourse. It is especially important now that we redouble and triple our efforts and we not allow ourselves to give up on those who need us the most.
July 29: White House Meetings
We started out Friday bright and early with a meeting. More than 160 Jewish social justice leaders, representing 21 organizations, gathered together at the National Press Club. The excitement in the room was palpable. We felt like we were making history and as Rabbi Bruce Elder said as he introduced JCUA, “It’s about time that we are here together.” Rabbi Dara
Frimmer led us in a special Kavanah (intention) before we walked to the White House conference rooms. We then sang a song that captured the collective power and cohesion of a group that had traveled from all around the country to bring a Jewish voice to the crucial justice issues of our time.
The group participated in four agency briefings on food security, housing, education and health and human services. In these policy briefings, leaders of different organizations shared two powerful stories from their communities. After a briefing from the administration, the group engaged in a dialogue.
Lunch was loud, hectic, with an abundance of food—the way a Jewish meal should be. Participants were eager to visit with old friends and meet new people. We learned about each other’s campaigns and programs. Creating opportunities for Jewish social justice leaders to come together and build relationships is essential in furthering our collaboration and growing the movement.
In the afternoon we moved to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB). An impressive list of speakers from the White House administration addressed our group, including:
- Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President
- Dr. Rebecca Blank, Under Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs,
- Danielle Borrin, Associate Director, White House Office of Public Engagement and Special Assistant, Office of the Vice President
- Cecilia Munoz, director of Intergovernmental Affairs
- Michael Strautmanis, Deputy Assistant to the President and Counselor for Strategic Engagement to the Senior Advisor
- Jon Carson, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director, White House of Public Engagement
- Tina Tchen, Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the First Lady
We heard from them regarding the challenges facing our country: the economy, immigration, working with a new Congress and more. But most importantly, they heard from us—our stories, our priorities, and our concerns.
Eve Copeland from Jews United for Justice shared how Jewish leaders organized meetings across Washington, D.C. to talk about tax increases to prevent drastic budget cuts to social services.
Ira Azulay from JCUA shared an immigration story and detailed in every step how broken the system is. Aaron Weininger from Keshet shared stories about what issues LGBT people face every day. Carole Levine from NCJW shared her personal story and her friends’ stories of unemployment.
At all of these meetings, we proudly promoted our Jewish values and shared our campaign stories, understanding that these issues are not just about politics, but about individuals and how their lives are compromised because of unjust policies. We came not only to talk about our ideal of justice, but the practical implications and impact upon communities. We asked question after question as to how we can work together with the administration to lift up the oppressed.
That evening many of us gathered with new and old friends and family to celebrate Shabbat. In our blessing over the wine we mentioned our memory of the exodus from Egypt. That day, that act of remembering was an active one. We brought to the forefront our indignation of injustice to those who are in power because we remember the pain and we remember that we, too, were once slaves in the land of Egypt.
*Photos taken by Kristian Whipple, kwhipple.com