Yesterday morning, after a 7:45 AM group photo on the Capitol Steps, we had breakfast in Rayburn, a Congressional building, after which 5 AJWS Congresspeople on the Hill (both Democrats and Republicans) who are AJWS friends and supporters, addressed us about their being cosponsors of IVAWA (the International Violence Against Women Act) and about their support of LGBT rights here and abroad, which are both primary AJWS foci.
These included Congressman Ted Deutch (D-Florida), whose rabbi, David Englander, is in my rabbinic cohort traveling to Guatemala this summer; Congressman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida), who is also the Chair of the Democratic National Committee; Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-NY) who shared that it was his rabbi who had persuaded him on this issue; Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois); Congressman Richard Hanna (R-NY); and Congressman Chris Gibson (R-NY).
It was clear that for the Republicans, AJWS’s lobbying was fundamental to their understanding of the issues (whether because of the influence of an AJWS supporter like Rep. Zeldin’s rabbi or because of AJWS’s direct lobbying on the Hill).
Chris Gibson, a Republican who was an original cosponsor of both IVAWA and IHRDA (the International Human Rights Defense Act which built protection of LGBT rights into the framework of US diplomacy), said that his military and security background is what had helped him to see a connection between human rights and national security.
Republican Lee Zeldin also spoke about his military background and how, in Iraq, he would get battle update briefs with red dots highlighting places where rape and sexual violence was taking place as further casualties of war. He also made the connection that as leaders of the free world, the US has to make this work a priority.
Ted Deutch cited the documentary “Girl Rising” as one of his influences, as well, about which he said that you can’t watch it and not think that “this work [of getting girls an education and out of cycles of early childhood marriage or sex slavery] is as important as anything we will do in our lives.” (BTW, I own a copy of the film and am happy to show it anywhere, anytime and lead a discussion. I agree that it is ESSENTIAL viewing.)
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who sits on the House Committee on Appropriations, talked about how the subcommittee deals with many of the issues that AJWS cares about: hunger of children, women’s empowerment, and the plight of women and children internationally. She called Ruth Messinger, AJWS president, “a force of nature” and said that the “world is so much better because of Ruth’s advocacy and leadership.” Those of us who know Ruth couldn’t agree more.
After the rallying cry from these congresspeople, we went off in our smaller groups to lobby, making 86 visits total yesterday on the Hill in both the Congress and the Senate! I went first with a small group from Westchester and the Bronx to lobby in Congresswoman Nita Lowey’s and Elliot Engel’s offices. Though the adults are all constituents of Congressman Engel’s district, the teens in our group were in Congresswoman Lowey’s district. And, I must say, the teens were AMAZING, speaking both about LGBT rights and the gay-straight alliance at their Jewish high school (Solomon Schechter of Westchester) and about the importance of education for girls and how they couldn’t imagine what it would mean to not have the opportunity to go to school.
Judy Stern, an AJWS board member (and one of my early supporters for the Healing Center that I run at my job) gave the AJWS overview. Bina Raskin who oversees Mosaic of Westchester, an organization aiming for LGBT inclusion, thanked both congresspeople for supporting the appointment of Randy Barry as LGBT special envoy. She also asked them to sign onto a new letter from Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-California (still in draft form) that would extend non-discrimination of LGBT folks in government contracts not just domestically but in foreign contracts, as well.
I presented about IVAWA and child marriage in each office, in which we had the following “asks”:
- Since both representatives are already cosponsors of IVAWA, could we depend on them to reach across the aisle and try to persuade some more Republicans to sign on?
- Could we depend on them to help pressure President Obama to not let the gender-based violence strategy sunset in August? (This is special funding to support programs abroad focussed on gender-based violence, but the funding could end.)
- Could we depend on them to pressure President Obama to write an Executive Order on child marriage, especially in light of First Lady Michelle’s Obama “Let Girls Learn” initiative which is geared to promoting educational opportunities to girls in the developing world?
Though we only met with staffers in each case, we knew we had the support of these liberal Democratic congresspeople.
Later we found out that the day of lobbying had gained us some new co-sponsors for IVAWA, and that others had been greatly educated on the issues. One group had had time to attend a hearing (led by Congressman Engel) on ISIS, hearing 4 female witnesses — including one nun — attest to atrocities.
I am now back in New York, after a late-night arrival home by bus (since Amtrak is shut down due to that tragic derailment). Ironically, this train tragedy did not turn the hearts of Republicans on the Hill yesterday. While we were lobbying for women’s rights and gay rights around the world, Republicans refused to increase Amtrak funding here at home, despite the fact that the accident seems to be the result of an underfunded rail system which didn’t have the safety upgrades it should have.
Such are the vagaries of American politics. Heaven help us.
Today is the 40th day of the Omer, humility in bonding.