Domestic Security Concerns, Iran Dominate OU Mission to D.C.

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Local leaders of the Orthodox Union Leadership Mission to Washington, D.C., made clear to Congress their concerns over ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Local leaders and other attendees of the Orthodox Union Leadership Mission to Washington, D.C., made clear to Congress their concerns over ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran 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.
 
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,” he said. 
 
His message was echoed by the delegates, who stood behind the OU’s position that no deal is preferable to a bad deal.  
 
Security on the homefront was also a source of major concern. Participants lobbied to have the funding for the Urban Area Security Initiative Non-Profit Security Grant Program, to which nonprofit institutions, like synagogues and day schools, can apply for funds that enable them to upgrade their security measures, 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 2014 shooting at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, a string of anti-Semitic hate crimes targeting synagogues in northern New Jersey in 2011 and the 2009 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 Foundation for Jewish Day Schools — a partner with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia — who said the security 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 would protect both the buildings and the people inside them.
 
“You can feel the difference in the community to those institutions that have applied and successfully received a grant,” added Holtz. “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, under whose umbrella South Jersey falls as part of the Metropolitan Statistical Area. The working group declared their institutions ineligible to have grants considered for the upcoming fiscal year, although no reason for the denial was given.
 
According to Alise Panitch and Uri Halle, the delegates who helped lead the efforts to craft grant applications for Jewish day schools and institutions in the region, they were notified only days before the deadline. They spoke with Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) and a member of Rep. Robert Brady’s (D-Pa.) staff on the issue.
Without the grants, the Jewish institutions in South Jersey will continue to “prioritize and seek local funding as we have year by year,” said Panitch. “There are property-wide 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 of up to 50 percent of the total cost of energy efficiency programs, or a maximum of $200,000, taken from $50 million that would be set aside for fiscal years 2016 to 2020.
 
The OU is part of a coalition, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Jewish Federations of North America, 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 in attendance at the afternoon luncheon, including Democratic stalwart Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.).
 
Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) were particularly well received for their work on the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. Cardin, who belongs to the modern Orthodox synagogue Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Baltimore, spoke out against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and referenced 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 military veteran who spent time in Afghanistan and Iraq as a civilian contractor 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 United States holds Israel to a higher standard than other countries, but he asserted that Israel holds the United States to a higher standard as well.  That comment rankled Hess and other attendees. “When Israel takes a view on U.S. policy, it’s only on major things,” he said. “The U.S. nitpicks at Israel down to” what ministerial posts are won.
 
French Ambassador to the U.S. Gérard 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 service 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.”
 
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