Last week, I was reminded of the power of the individual and the power of the collective, two forces that drive Jewish life and American life. I was a member of an advocacy mission to Washington, D.C. made up of members of the National Women’s Philanthropy Board (NWP), the group of women leaders sponsored by Jewish Federations of North America. It was a quick trip, just about 24 hours, but the lessons I learned are still echoing in my brain.
I made it to Washington in time for dinner and a nighttime tour of the monuments. We shared a text study based on the famous “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the many references in that speech related to Jewish sources.
We then went to see the new monument erected in Dr. King’s honor — one man, whose words still echo today, one man who, with the help of many unnamed heroes, changed this country for the better, and helped us live up to our ideals of dignity for every person. We talked about one of my personal heroes, Jackie Levine, a past NWP chair from MetroWest (among many other titles and honors), who marched with Dr. King in Selma. It was a special evening.
The next morning we headed to Capitol Hill for meetings with senators and representatives. As in previous trips like this, either through NWP or Young Leadership Washington conferences, I was reminded of the grandeur of our nation’s capitol — the stately marble halls, the national museums and monuments, the broad avenues and superb vistas. Despite all of the all-too-real concerns about the workings of government, it is still an inspiring place where we can remember the principles upon which the United States was founded and where we have the freedom to visit with our representatives and senators and let them know what matters to us.
Whether you are a Republican, Democrat, or Independent voter or somewhere in between, if you follow domestic politics via newspapers, television, internet, and/or Twitter, it is easy to become disillusioned by the level and content of the public discourse.
It is refreshing, therefore, to meet the men and women responsible for our government and to see that they are real people who are willing to listen to our concerns. We met with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Representatives Nita Lowey and Jared Polis, and Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Coons.
These busy men and women took the time out of their schedule to meet with 15 women from NWP, a tribute to being part of an umbrella organization, JFNA, which is so respected for the good 157 federations do here, in Israel, and around the world. Gail Norry, NWP chair, reminded us that only 65 years ago, the Jewish community did not hold enough power to garner the attention of our American government at one of the most desperate times in our history. Acting together makes a difference.
Every single legislator who we met with told us, in almost the exact same words, that the single issue on which there is solid, almost unanimous, bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate is support for Israel. It was reassuring, given the times in which Israel exists. But it was what we heard from Senator Coons, Democrat from Delaware, that will have a lasting impact on me, and which will give me reason to believe in both the power of the individual and the power of collective action for a long time to come.
Senator Coons outlined why he feels the United States and Israel are so strongly linked and, therefore, why Israel is so deserving of the bipartisan support it receives. He mentioned three things: both the United States and Israel were founded as places of refuge; both countries hold themselves to a higher standard of behavior and honor; and each country has a system of government based on open debate and access. (Senator Coons has obviously visited the Knesset!) While each country also must be strong and prepared to fight those who would attack them, Senator Coons continued, each country also places a value on the risk of investing time and effort in those who might disagree with us in order to achieve greater peace and understanding.
This was a stirring set of comments, but it wasn’t enough for our lively group. NWP President Linda Hurwitz asked Senator Coons how he came to have such a deep understanding and feel for Israel. He told us that all his life he has had Jewish friends who helped him understand that Jews stand up for the underdog (this from his nine-year-old friend on the playground), who took him to Israel after college to see the situation on the ground and to see the joy of Israel, and who shared their passion as Jewish Americans for the State of Israel.
One Jewish friend from law school told the Senator, as they were watching coverage of the first Gulf War, “I would fight for the United States, but I would die for Israel.” And I knew then that Senator Chris Coons really “got it.” And that he got there because individual Jews were willing to share their strong commitment to their values and ideals. Each of us, even a nine year old, has the ability to influence those around us in a positive way about what it means to be Jewish and what it means to love Israel. Never doubt that for one second.
And then Senator Coons did one more remarkable thing, something so unexpected, that it took my breath away. He asked us to join him in writing a letter to a Jewish prisoner. He told us about his recent trip to Cuba, where he met with Alan Gross, the Jewish American sentenced to 15 years in prison for bringing communication equipment to Cuba.
Gross was arrested in 2009 and convicted in March 2011. Since he has been in prison, both his mother and daughter have suffered serious health problems. Gross himself is not well and is being held at a prison medical hospital. From reading current articles in both the Washington Post and JTA, it is clear that Gross’s case is complicated, and Senator Coons acknowledged that.
But what was more important to the Senator than Gross’s guilt or innocence was that this was an American imprisoned in a hostile foreign country who needed to know that he was not forgotten. Coons’ father visited prisoners at the Delaware State Penitentiary when Coons was a child and taught him that it is an obligation of every person to comfort the ill, the bereaved, and the prisoner; these are Jewish obligations as well, acts of loving kindness called gemulit chasidim.
If you are interested in joining me in letting Alan Gross know that he is not forgotten — and this is not a matter of seeking his release or a referendum on his guilt or innocence, simply an act of kindness — you can send your letter to Alan in care of Senator Coon’s office at 127A Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20510.
This weekend, we celebrate Memorial Day, when we remember the sacrifices made by others so that we can live freely as Americans. We also celebrate Shavuot, our receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Individual sacrifices on Memorial Day, individual acceptance of Torah on Shavuot. But, without collective will to protect our freedoms, no war America has ever fought would have been won. And without collective action as a Jewish community, individual Jews are left on their own.
What a country! What a people!
Chag Shavuot Sameach and a peaceful Memorial Day,