d a s ion
More Jews on Capitol
Hill are turning toward
their tradition —and
national Jewish groups
JAMES D. BESSER WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT
Landsberg said. "In difficult times like these, that is
different from mine, so be it."
Also, the relationships and the trust developed even more important."
The growing Jewish presence on Capitol Hill, she
through purely religious contacts can open doors.
"In the past, people would assume that if I was corn- said, also makes the point that the Christian right
ing to their offices, with my kippah on, it had to do with doesn't have a monopoly on the religious perspective
Israel, or with a question ofJewish self-interest," Rab- and its application to public policy — such as school
bi Epstein said. "Now, as we continue this process of prayer.
"It's very important that people see that as religious
talking to people about the broader questions they are
asking, we don't have to pound on the door when we people, we have a very strong concern about this push
to pass legislation allowing prayer in the public schools,
have something we want to say about an issue."
The Reform movement has chosen a different route; since there are groups on the other side who insist that
through the Religious Action Center of Reform Ju- their point of view represents the 'religious' point of
daism, it is finding new ways to bring Jewish religious view," she said.
Some non-religious Jewish groups are getting in-
teaching into training sessions for young political ac-
volved as well. The American Jewish Committee has
The RAC, an outpost of the Union of American He- started a study group for staffers on "God, Judaism
brew Congregations, once had a virtual monopoly on and politics," as well; at a recent session, the topic was
Jewish activism in Washington from a religious per- the problem of evil, using the Book of Job as a text.
spective. Now, Orthodox groups are increasingly ac-
tive on the political front — and, reflective of the Reform
movement nationally, the RAC is increasingly inter-
ested in enriching its political activism with traditional Not surprisingly, the Lubavitchers, with their strong
emphasis on outreach to unaffiliated Jews, have been
Recently, the group held its biennial "Consulta- major players in this Jewish renaissance in Wash-
tion on Conscience," which brings politically-minded ington.
young people to Washington for intensive training in
"I'm not a Jewish missionary on the Hill," Rabbi
political activism. Each session started with a study Shemtov said. "I'm very sensitive to that. And I'm not
a spiritual leader in a traditional sense. I do all this in-
"The point we really want to get across is that our formally; I don't want to make a big deal out of it."
religion, and the traditions and texts we study, are not
And he said that his activities in Washington have
ju s t incidental to thc comp,:nent," Rabbi nothing to do with politics.
The Lubavitchers have weighed in on education is-
sues, and Rabbi Shemtov successfully pressed for a
congressional medal honoring their late rebbe, Men-
achem Mendel Schneerson. But most of his work in-
volves outreach to hundreds ofJewish staffers, as well
as Jewish employees of an alphabet soup of federal
agencies clustered around the Capitol, most of whom
have only limited experience with Judaism.
At Rabbi Shemtov's Purim party this year, it was
evident that many of the assembled staffers were not
familiar with the Megillah reading. But their interest
was clear; they were almost silent during the accel-
erated reading, something that almost never happens
in the clamorous congressional setting.
Rabbi Shemtov also runs regular, informal Torah
study lunches and periodic formal lunches with well-
known speakers from the religious world.
A session on the relevance of the Ten Command-
ments drew more than 40 staffers. At another semi-
nar, a speaker discussed the Talmudic perspective on
judicial and legislative systems.
Many of the sessions take place in his home, adding
to the informal atmosphere. "I live about a block from
the Senate office buildings," he said. "Psychologically,
that takes people 'off campus."
Although his primary target is Jewish staffers, Rab-
bi Shemtov said that Jewish senators and congress-
men have expressed an interest in their own sessions.
"With their schedules, it would have to be sporadic,"
he said. "My involvement with them is more one-on-
one." He describes the growing interest he sees as "part
of a search for more meaning in their work and their
lives; it's very encouraging to see."
Another spiritual leader that's become a common scene
in the halls of power is Rabbi Jay Marcus. Getting him
to talk about his efforts on Capitol Hill is like pulling
teeth. But his biweekly lunch and study sessions for
Jewish legislators have gained a solid following.
Members speak glowingly about his lively, wide-
ranging discussions, sponsored by the Genesis Foun-
dation, and about the impact his teaching has had
on both their lives.
A recent discussion of the Book of Esther, Rabbi
Marcus said, dealt with the issue of political power;
other recent sessions have considered changes in the
government's approach to poverty, based on Talmu-
dic and biblical insights.
He is modest about the impact of his classes on pub-
"We don't try to influence decisions," he said. "But
it's obvious that as thinking individuals, the members
of Congress are very excited to find that there are tra-
ditional sources that deal with contemporary issues."
Most sessions draw six to 10 legislators and top
staffers; there is a hard core of about 20 who attend on
a fairly regular basis. "They do not always have a good
basic Jewish education," he said. "But the discussion