e c it
PHOTO BY REB ECCA SHAVUL SKY
s the swirling Washington policy de-
bates continue with no relief in
sight, there's one topic in the na-
tion's capital that has seen a
resurgence in funding and focus
of late. Jewish tradition — and
what it says about issues such
as welfare reform, prayer in
school and abortion — is a
hot topic for Jews working
on the Hill.
Take the reception
that Rabbi Levi Shem-
tov receives in his trav-
els. He wouldn't draw
a second glance in
Crown Heights, but
he cuts a distinc-
tive figure on
portly, relentlessly energetic and Chasidic right down
to his socks. In the past two years, Rabbi Shemtov,
Washington director for American Friends of Lubav-
itch, has become a familiar sight in the House and Sen-
ate office buildings. His home on the Hill has become
a magnet for some Jewish congressional aides and the
occasional Jewish legislator looking for something deep-
er than just the convenient, ephemeral answers of pol-
A member of Congress, in a pensive mood, wandered
over one recent afternoon for a chat about how he could
express his Jewishness in a more meaningful way in
pursuing his legislative duties.
"My advice was that he should understand that to
other members, he may represent their first and only
interaction with a Jewish person," Rabbi Shemtov said.
"So he has many opportunities to allow people to see
what a Jew is all about...If a Jew is ethical, it's good
for the Jews."
Some seek him out to ask about the connection be-
tween the rich body of Jewish law and tradition and
the vexing national problems that tie up Congress in
knots. Some ask him the kinds of questions they'd ask
their local rabbi, if they had a local rabbi.
Rabbi Shemtov is part of a quiet revolution in Wash-
ington. More and more, Jews active in public affairs
are making contact with their religious roots, look-
ing for ways to ground their daily duties in something
more solid than the often sordid business of politics.
Classes for staffers and legislators are proliferating.
Jews on Capitol Hill, in a sense, are coming out of the
"Fifteen years ago, there were many fewer Jews on
the Hill — and they were much less visible," said Doug
Bloomfield, who used to be the top lobbyist for the
American Israel Public Affairs Committee — and, be-
fore that, a staffer for Rep. Ben Rosenthal (D-N.Y.) and
Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.). "Congress didn't
worry about scheduling votes on important Jewish hol-
idays; that's not true today. There's a growing sensi-
tivity clear across the political spectrum to the needs
of Jewish members and staffers."
Rabbi Lynne Lands-
berg, associate director of
the Reform movement's
Religious Action Center,
is one of the Jewish pro-
fessionals pushing that
"All over the country,
people are asking the
question, 'Why do we do what we do as Jews?"' she
said. "That's happening in Washington, as well. And
we see it as a very positive development, for our own
people and for our country as a whole."
Rabbi Lynne Landsberg
of the Religious
"We wanted to show
people the rootedness
of social action."
Nobody has collected statistics about the religious back-
grounds of congressional staffs. But there is no doubt
that Jews are disproportionately represented in House
and Senate offices; some 20 to 30 percent of the pro-
fessional-level work force is Jewish, according to some
Younger staffers, in particular, are interested in
finding ways to use Jewish law and tradition to help
them gain perspective on issues that seem resistant
to strictly political solutions.
"More and more, many of us feel a need to exam-
ine the moral component of issues, especially today,
when we're re-evaluating all these government pro-
grams," said a Jewish staffer who works for a non-Jew-
ish congressman. "I look at an issue like welfare re-
form, and all I see is the political rhetoric and the con-
flicting statistics; I find myself wanting to talk about
what's right, not just what we can get passed. That's
where the religious context can play a real role in what
Although the religious revival on Capitol Hill of-
ten seems to be largely an Orthodox phenomenon, it
also has touched the Conservative and Reform worlds.
The Conservative movement is considering a per-
manent outreach to the Hill, according to Rabbi Jerome
M. Epstein, executive vice president and chief operat-
ing officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative
Part of the nascent Conservative effort, he admit-
ted, is a function of the Orthodox cast to most cur-
rent Capitol Hill Jewish study.
"We want people to understand that there are nu-
ances in the Jewish community," Rabbi Epstein said.
"It's important that these questions be discussed not
just from an Orthodox perspective."
But the growing Conservative interest in Capitol
Hill also is a function of interest expressed by Wash-
ingtonians. Rabbi Epstein regularly fields calls from
staffers interested in a wide range of political issues
and their Jewish implications — from terrorism to the
"Contract with America."
He stresses that such outreach has to be nonde-
nominational and low-key. "I don't tell people what to
believe," he said. "I try to help people to understand
what I understand, and if they come to a decision that's