Jewish Federation Visits Washington Promoting Four-Pronged Agenda

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Members of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia, Women’s Philanthropy and Women of Vision Foundation pose in front of the U.S. Capitol on D.C. Advocacy Day.| Photo provided

“Don’t let the men do all the talking,” Shira Goodman, CeaseFirePA’s executive director and member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Women’s Philanthropy group, lightheardedly advised while aboard a bus heading to Washington, D.C., at 6:30 a.m. on a chilly Nov. 9.

She joined a contingent from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia, Women’s Philanthropy and the Women of Vision Foundation for D.C. Advocacy Day with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

The group of mostly women met with political officials and leaders in the wider Jewish community to discuss four issues: the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and anti-Semitism; gun violence; immigration and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program; and food insecurity and the SNAP program.

On the way, those who weren’t dozing off leafed through backgrounders and profiles of the representatives they would meet. They also caucused about the severity of the issues they would discuss throughout the day.

“It’s harder to get a dog than it is to get a gun,” remarked one woman.

Upon arriving in D.C., the group headed to the Rayburn House Office Building for coffee and bagels, and heard from William Daroff, vice president for public policy of the Jewish Federations of North America, and David Bernstein, CEO and president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Daroff commended the group just for showing up.

“We’re working through these issues; we appreciate your being engaged,” he said while discussing BDS. “Your being here waving the [Jewish] Federation banner will make
a difference.”

Before lunch, where they heard from retiring Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) and spirited newcomer Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), the group gathered in a spacious room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

A staff person from the office of Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) himself spoke to the group about gun control, the president’s Twitter habits, DACA, the Iran deal and other issues. Casey punctuated his more impassioned points by pounding his fist on the lectern.

Sen. Bob Casey speaks to the group.| Photo by Marissa Stern

They were later split into groups to meet with Pennsylvania congressional representatives on both sides of the aisle.

While some may have been disappointed that they didn’t speak directly with a congressman, the staffers are just as important, noted Women’s Philanthropy Director Marni Davis, who met with a staff person from the office of Rep. Bob Brady (D-District 1).  
For her, the day was a chance to encourage those who have never lobbied to speak up.

“You’re always going to get the people who are very politically minded, and that’s their thing and this speaks to them,” Davis said, “but I like it when people show up who aren’t, and they just want to learn and understand what it means to advocate and what it means to lobby. It doesn’t have to be a person who calls [him or herself] a lobbyist to care.”

As the U.S. Capitol loomed against a gray sky, Jewish Federation CEO Naomi Adler remarked with a smile that advocacy days like this make her “week and [her] month.”

“I love the ability to watch how people learn one important fact that changes their perspective or opens their eyes to how difficult it is to make policy,” said Adler, who also led a discussion about civility in politics.

The generations and interest levels present among the group stood out to her — as did the importance that the majority were women.

“Traditionally, women were never told how to effectively advocate for the issues that are at the core of their values and their families and their experiences, and still, we find many women are ready to allow someone else to do the speaking for them,” she said. “So at every age, and at every stage, a woman needs to be reminded of how this is a process in which they should engage.

“Civic engagement is a Jewish value, and community engagement is part of the Jewish Federation’s mission.”

The Jewish Federation and JCRC do advocacy days annually for issues about disabilities, but this was a much different itinerary, she noted.

Abbey Frank, assistant director of the JCRC, hopes attendees start to take “their own steps to advocate as Jews, citizens and residents of Pennsylvania to stand up for issues that they care about.”

“It’s one thing to send a letter or an email and say you stand for certain things, but it’s another thing to see someone’s face and understand how the process works and be in their office,” she said.

As they searched for a place to grab dinner after a meeting with Paul Teller, special assistant to President Donald Trump for legislative affairs, Amy Wittenstein and Karen Kramer reflected on their day.

“In this political climate, it’s important that we are able to hear all views, Republican and Democrat, and let our views be known,” Wittenstein said.

“You can’t say you want change … if you don’t take a step to do something,” she said. “You vote, you come here, you write to your representatives — you have to do something and you have no one to blame if you don’t do something.”

“It’s important as women — and as Jewish women — to have the opportunity to show up and be present and to be able to speak,” added Kramer, even if they didn’t agree with everything they heard from the day’s speakers.

On the bus home, where the group was treated to dessert and wine, Women’s Philanthropy President Sheree Bloch and Terri Grossman discussed some highlights of their day, which for Bloch included talking to Casey and impromptu tours of the offices of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

While there was no time for group questions with Casey, Bloch caught up with him as they were leaving to discuss his becoming a co-sponsor of anti-BDS legislation, including the Combating BDS Act of 2017 of which Toomey is a co-sponsor.

“Sometimes it can be extremely frustrating,” Bloch said of trying to make one’s voice heard, “but we met face-to-face with our senators and our congressmen and we were able to communicate to them about issues that are of importance to us in our community.”

It was Grossman’s first time lobbying and while she admitted she was nervous going into the day, she felt it was productive.

“The congressmen and senators have needed a big hug, a kiss, and a push toward doing some good for our country because I feel like we’re a little stuck in some devisiveness, and I wanted to come to see if I could make a difference,” she said.

“We’re paving the way to come back, and we hope to come back bigger and stronger and advocate for the issues that are important to all Jewish people.” 

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