Jewish Social Justice Activists at the White House

By Jan Caryl Kaufman

On July 29, 170 members of Jewish social justice organizations met at the White House with administration officials and agency representatives.  The day was organized by Jewish Funds for Justice and Progressive Jewish Alliance (which recently merged).  It was part of the White House’s summer of focus on faith-based and community organizations.  All the other gatherings have been issue-oriented.  This event was the only one focused on a particular community.

Elsewhere you have seen the names of colleagues from the RA who attended. In addition to our official delegation, a number of our rabbis attended as part of other delegations.  All of the groups are part of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, to which the RA belongs.

The logistics of the day sound like a typical gathering – an orientation session, briefing sessions on issues, lunch and a general session with speakers and Q&A.  However, the atmosphere of the day was one of excitement.  Of course there is a sense of energy that comes from being at the White House, but the gathering of 21 organizations, each doing important on-the-ground work, was at least as important as the venue.

Senior officials from the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development led sessions respectively on legislative and policy issues in education, health care reform, food justice and housing.  Individual delegates were designated to frame the conversation with narratives from their work, and the government officials spent the bulk of their time answering questions.  (I attended the food justice briefing and had the chance to ask if there would be a champion in government for Magen Tzedek’s concerns similar to the First Lady’s advocacy for healthier diets.  Secretary Vilsack was named as such a person.)

Notes from these sessions, we are promised, will be forthcoming.

The afternoon meeting occurred during the debt ceiling negotiations.  Even so, Valerie Jarrett, the President’s senior advisor, broke away to join us.  We were also briefed by Dr. Rebecca Blank from Commerce on the economy, Michael Strautmanis, one of the President’s advisers, on the approach of the administration to its policy initiatives, and Brian Bond of the Office of Public Engagement on DODT repeal.  Jon Carson, who directs the Office of Public Engagement, took comments and answered questions for over an hour.

There is no question that those in attendance shared a political bent sympathetic to progressive politics.  The questions presented represented challenges to the administration’s actions and enabled the speakers to respond with what I found to be remarkable candor about the practical aspects of governing.  Among the points made by numerous speakers was the emphasis on forward motion.  That is, success is not measured by reaching a predetermined goal but by improving the status quo in pursuit of the goal.  From the frustration with the economy, to increasing food access for the poor, to the reform of health care, each speaker emphasized the importance of small success.

If there was a general take-away, it was this: government represents a top-down approach to society’s dilemmas, but cannot succeed on its own.  Pressure from the “grassroots and grass tops” is equally necessary for change to occur.  Each speaker challenged us to hold the government accountable for its promises by demanding action, especially from the federal workers in localities (who make up the overwhelming majority of federal workers).  These expectations are different from the political process, which focuses on which policies to adopt; in these circumstances, we should expect government to deliver on the policies in place.

I expect that an “official” document will emerge from this meeting that will include web sites and other contact information in pursuit of those goals.  We’ll forward it when we have it.

Two other quick points: the day was interlaced with divrei torah and other instruction from the participants, lay and rabbinic.  In and of itself, it is a prideworthy aspect of the day.  A number of our colleagues, including Andrea Merow, Jason Kimelman-Block, JTS senior Aaron Weininger, and I were among the presenters.

Many of you want to know if anyone focused on Israel.  It was pretty clear that the agenda for the day was not the Middle East.  Still, a number of delegates challenged the speakers to share the concern afoot in the community about the administration’s approach to Israel, and that message was heard loud and clear.

We should be particularly grateful to Simon Greer, then head of JFJ and now of the Cummings Foundation, for his ability to pull together the event with the White House.  Likewise, Danielle Borrin of the Office of Public Engagement was the point person to our community for the administration – a job she conducts with incredible poise and competence all year round. 

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