By Rabbi Joshua Salter
Associate Rabbi, Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation
I would like to thank the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable and specifically the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs for allowing me the opportunity to attend and play a part in our efforts to reach out to national legislators and President Obama’s staff. I’m glad Jewish people were represented at our nation’s capital and that I was one of them.
The Roundtable is composed on 21 Jewish social justice organizations from 16 states that sent 170 representatives to advocate for them in Washington, D.C. on July 28 and 29. Our focus was on four issue areas: education, health care, environmental issues and housing.
Our Thursday afternoon session in the Senate chambers featured visits from progressive members of Congress who champion our causes. I would really like to thank Sen. Mark Begich, our very own Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Rep. Henry Waxman, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz for taking time out of their busy schedules to meet with us. I would also like to thank Sen. Charles Schumer and another legislator from my home state, Sen. Dick Durbin, for sending top staff people to represent them.
This was an all-star lineup for us as we weren’t sure who would be able to attend our meeting, due to the situation that exists in Washington these days. All the legislators we did meet with made a strong effort to connect with us and it seemed like it was a relief for them to share their efforts to address the budget crisis and our country’s direction. Very frank discussions were held, which I appreciate, knowing how mundane conversations in these settings can be.
On Friday morning there were briefings with White House staff around our particular issues. I attended a briefing on affordable housing and the foreclosure issues, where we were joined by Helen Kanovsky, general counsel at the Department for the Housing and Urban Development (HUD), who laid out HUD’s endeavors and challenges in addressing housing issues.
We asked many tough questions and I would like to credit Kanovsky for answering each to the best of her ability, although much still needs to be done to address housing concerns.
I wrapped up the sessions with a short story about a trip I had taken with my oldest daughter Yafah to visit a college. My youngest daughter Ariel was in the back seat reading a story in the newspaper about government issues and ranting to her grandmother about how “good people need to stand up,” and, “they can’t treat us like this.”
That was about a month ago when I didn’t know that I would be going to Washington, D.C. and speaking to government officials about the pressing issues facing our society. The Monday before the trip, I asked my daughter if she wanted me to say the things she’d said in the car when I got to Washington and she said, “No, just tell them that they have to do better. Our Jewish faith teaches us to be less selfish and more self-less.”
Who is the “us” Ariel mentioned? I will leave that to you to answer.
We were treated to a kosher lunch that sparked much lively conversation. There was something beautiful going on. Everyone in the room knew their issues well and knew why they were involved in those issues.
Our afternoon sessions begin with a welcome from Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to the president, who again reiterated the pressures that the administration was under concerning the debt ceiling and efforts to save social safety nets. Although her presentation was brief, we all appreciated the time she gave to us and appreciated her sharing so openly with us.
We also heard from Cecilia Muñoz, director of intergovernmental affairs, told us of the challenges the administration faces with regards to achieving immigration reform. Michael Strautmanis, assistant to the president, gave us tidbits into the president’s ideals and values and we had fruitful and contentious dialog with Jon Carson, who heads up the Office of Public Engagement.
This concluded our day of meetings with the White House, but not our work, as we must continue to build power by going back to our base and finding leaders who will stand in the gaps that exist and be the bridges that allow all of God’s children to live dignified lives. Our faith challenges us to do so—especially in times like these.