Access and Influence

By Rabbi Daniel Cohen, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, South Orange


This was my Shabbat message last week:

In the small section of if the Talmud known as Pirke Avot we read:
‎וְאַל תִּתְוַדַּע לָרָשׁוּת
Do not attempt to draw near to the ruling authority.

Elsewhere in the Talmud we find a legal tradition that states, “The law of the land is the law.” Literally it instructs that laws decreed by secular authorities superseded Jewish law so that, as my Talmud teacher put it, “we don’t draw the ire of those in power.”

These teachings made sense at a time when the legal and political authorities were antagonistic toward our community. It was good advice at a time when we had no power, no access and no influence. But we live in a different time and place than the authors of those texts. Despite recent charges of dual loyalty, we are proud American citizens. Moreover, we have access and influence – but only if we choose to act upon them.

In our day, the prudent path is to build relationships with our leaders, for their benefit and for ours. Only when we do so are we in a position to help ensure that the law of the land is the law for all.

That’s why I was honored to spend two days in Washington, D.C. as part of a group of some 40 lay and professional leaders from our Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest and four other New Jersey Jewish Federations.

While there, we met with Members of Congress Mikie Sherrill, Josh Gottheimer, Tom Malinowski, and Donald M. Payne Jr., and Senator Bob Menendez. (Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman and Senator Cory Booker were unable to meet in person but sent key members of their staff in their stead.) We also had the opportunity to meet with Ambassador Elan Carr, Congressman Ted Deutch, and Mark S. Mellman, founder of the Democratic Majority for Israel.

We discussed the rise in anti-Semitism, racism, and hate and the need to increase non-profit security grant funding to address this ugly turn in our nation. We discussed the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship and asked our policymakers to back a new initiative called the Partnership Fund for Peace Act of 2019 to support grassroots peace-building projects between Israelis and Palestinians. Finally, we discussed the need to fund programs aiding our elderly.

I was inspired by the thoughtfulness of our Members of Congress and am grateful that each expressed their support for the programs we were discussing. At a time when so many have lost faith in our government, I was reminded that we are incredibly well-served by our New Jersey delegation. I am grateful to each of them.

Perhaps Federation CEO Dov Ben-Shimon put it best when he wrote on Facebook,

”...for me, at least, the key message from these past two days was the fact that concerned, passionate, and committed citizens of our community, of our democracy, had taken the time and thought to come down to our capital and meet with these representatives and thinkers. That says something. About who we are, about our love for this community and country, and about our commitment to dialogue and improvement.”

Our meetings reinforced the fact that we have unprecedented access to our politicians. Our lawmakers want to hear from us, and our voices do matter. That is important, not only for our sake, but also because the values and commitments of our tradition are more needed in our country and in the world than at any time I can recall. But our voices can only be heard if we speak out.