Once Upon a Time in the Capitol

There was a time in the US Capitol that Jewish Republican and Democratic members of Congress shared lunch and studied the Talmud, Jewish Holidays and the Bible, on a regular basis. They could be sure that their get-togethers would be nonjudgmental and absent the blinding glare of the media. The members of Congress who participated in this study group were diverse — regionally, religiously and politically. Some of the participants in this “holy caucus” invited trusted staff members to join them — fortunately, I was one of them.

The class was not led by a rabbi with an agenda, or one who sought fame and influence; he hailed from normative Orthodoxy, educated at Yeshiva University and served as the spiritual leader of one of the largest Orthodox synagogues in the country. Despite the denominational mix and religious background of the participants, no one challenged the religious compass used as the basis for the discussions. The needle pointed to “Orthodox.” However, the most important feature of this Minyan on the Hill was that the content of the discussions stayed in the Capitol.

Why am I writing about a series of classes that sunset a few years ago? It is because such informal religious sessions breakdown partisan divides, stimulate mutual respect, foster resilient friendships, strengthen spiritual commitment and bolster religious knowledge. These aspirations are as essential today, as they were in 1983.

In that year, there was a longstanding Bible class for Christian members of Congress, but no regular religious studies for Jewish members. So, in late 1983, then-Rep. Chuck Schumer (NY) brought to the Capitol Rabbi Jay Marcus, the dynamic spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Staten Island, in New York. (Rabbi Marcus moved to Israel about a decade ago, where he is the founding dean of Yeshiva Reishit Yerushayim, a Zionist Orthodox post-secondary educational institution for young men.)  With the financial assistance of Washington philanthropist Howard Bender, the class began and Jewish members of Congress took part in biweekly study sessions. Schumer’s office handled the logistics for the first few years, and then the coordination was delegated to me, a staff member of Rep. Gary Ackerman.

The congressional group was bipartisan and strongly committed to one another throughout the years of its existence. Twelve members of Congress were usually in attendance. Early Republicans members included Ben Gilman (NY), John Miller (WA), Jon Fox (PA) and Steve Schiff (NM).  Early Democratic members included Ted Weiss (NY), Sala Burton (CA), Henry Waxman (CA), Gary Ackerman (NY), Sam Gejdenson (CT) and Martin Frost (TX). Remarkably, Rep. Burton was the great grandniece of the Chofetz Chaim, a late nineteenth-early twentieth century influential Jewish scholar. In addition to Sen. Schumer, current Sens. Cardin (MD) and Wyden (OR) were also early participants.

During the years that the study sessions took place, there were sukkah parties hosted by members of Congress. (A sukkah is a temporary religious structure assembled prior to the holiday of Succot and used for meals during the holiday.) The first one was hosted at Rep. John Miller’s Capitol Hill townhouse in the mid-1980s; it was notable for the rainy-day sukkah construction and the detailed explanation provided by Rabbi Marcus about sukkah use during inclement weather – nobody complained. Also, one of the classes was taught by renowned scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, on the topic of Tzedakah (charity).  Of course, the importance and centrism of Israel infused many discussions. In fact, in 1992, the congressional participants instructed staff to roll a television into the room to view one of Secretary of State Baker’s rants against Israel. Ironically, during a subsequent session, on the day in which PLO Chairman Yassir Arfat visited the Capitol, he was steps away from joining the study group in the room. That potential disaster was averted.

One of the more humorous stories stemming from the sessions was that House Speaker Tip O’Neill got his hands on one of the Jewish texts used by Rabbi Marcus, brought it to the Speaker’s rostrum in the House Chamber, called one of the House’s senior Jewish members to the rostrum, and quietly quizzed the congressman about facts in the text. Failing to give the correct responses, the representative conceded ignorance. Subsequently, the representative demanded that a staff participant in the class provide him with any future study material, so he would not be embarrassed by the Speaker again.

The class venue changed a number of times. First, we first we met in an ornate meeting room on the first floor of the East Front of the Capitol, and then moved to the Speaker’s Dining Room for about five years. We also met in the renovated basement wing of the Capitol, assorted rooms in the Capitol Visitors Center, and in a subcommittee hearing room provided by two successive GOP former Chairmen of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Tom Davis (VA) and Dan Burton (IN).  During the years, on a handful of occasions, we were joined by the chaplains of the House and the Senate. Obviously, the respect for the group extended beyond our co-religionists.

The take away from my recollections of the congressional Jewish study group was that party labels had no place within the study sessions. The discussions provided a traditional Jewish context for policy issues that may have been under consideration.  The banter was light-hearted, yet respectful. During the years in which the classes took place, no participant campaigned against another participant or endorsed a participant’s opponent. And, the one and one-half hours spent with Rabbi Marcus and their congressional colleagues provided a much-needed sanctuary from the blood-sport of politics.

We need this type of discourse now more than ever.

About the Author
Bob Levi has served in numerous Jewish communal positions, worked on Capitol Hill for former Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), and in governmental affairs representing public employee associations for the past 25 years. He is a former two-term chairman of the board of the National Council of Young Israel and past president of Young Israel Shomrai Emunah of Greater Washington.
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