When I was running for NY state office in 2012 with a strong emphasis towards educational reform, I was challenged as to why indeed I had not even completed my own college education. The critique, I felt, was legitimate for I had struggled with that contradiction within myself as well. I had explained to the press that I was brought up in an Eastern European type environment, my parents having been Siberia and Holocaust survivors and formal education or civic engagement were not what they role modeled.
My father was fluent in Chumash and Rashi and you'd be hard pressed to find a word in all of Tanach that he couldn't translate. When my mother grew up in Poland in the 20's and 30's, Jewish education for girls had not yet been institutionalized but she taught herself to read Yiddish fluently and to read and understand Hebrew as well. Though my mother, in her youth, loved to read Polish books including classics such as "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "Anne of Green Gables", as an adult, her devotion turned to reading "Tzenne Renne", a Yiddish commentary of Chumash. As far as secular education however, both of my parents had an elementary one, since that was the extent of what a Polish village then was able to offer its citizens.
My parents, however,were heavily invested in the issue of good and evil, having experienced the horrors of World War II. Naturally their indignation was well placed. Both felt that living as a "frume yid" (religious Jew) would suffice in life even though their first hand experience with the harshest of political life in Europe, you would think, would have broadened their mind to consider civic engagement as well.
My mother was quite proud of achieving her American citizenship but my father having a fatalistic attitude, even worrying about a possible Communist invasion by the Soviet Union, didn't even bother. Don't get me wrong. My father had the greatest respect for the American military. He was a military man himself having served in the Polish/Russian army before being sent to Siberia by the crazy Stalin regime. The respect and appreciation he felt for the American army liberators, therefore, was immense and palpable. That appreciation, however, didn't carry over to the American political or economic systems. Fatalism and apathy towards the picture of political life in America and what it will bring him and his family was probably too much for him to contemplate. The Nazis had taken from him his first wife along with a one year old son and his own parents.
My father acknowledged the great power of America but he was not confident that America would always be able to defend itself against the Soviet Union. He had a love and deep respect for the newly formed state of Israel, but when he saw on television a scene of chalutzeem (Israeli pioneers) dancing the horah, I could see him sometimes cry because he didn't feel assured that the new state of Israel would be able to withstand another onslaught from its greatly populated and warring neighbors. My father, however, was a very hardy man and fearlessly fought as a soldier during World War II. After the war, he once stood up to some Russian hooligans who were about to attack or rape a young Jewish woman. His intervention along with throwing them his nice leather coat distracted them and got them to let the woman go. But when it came to the state of Israel, he was worried and felt powerless.
So when it came to my own education and world view, I saw early on the value of Jewish education - the intensity of Talmudic analysis and the fulfillment of character development. When I started college I had an appreciation for and performed well in, the study of social and individual human behavior (psychology and sociology courses) but when it came to learn about American Government, its study of beurocracy and structure, my father's impatience and apathy apparently had rubbed off on me and I was incapable of seeing the value in it, so I dropped out of college.
However just several years hence, on my own, I developed a genuine curiosity about the world that would compel me to follow domestic and international events. That informal study without academic indoctrination, has gone on since 1981. Also, as a result of not having a college degree I spent my career as a rank and file civil servant, thereby observing life from a grassroots level. Additionally, I came to learn what real life was about since I became a small landlord in 1989, providing housing for low income tenants and having to deal with a heavy handed landlord-tenant court system.
Over the course of that time I had internalized my own political views to such an extent that I felt that I needed to offer them to the community in the way of my own candidacy, if that were the will of the people. That's when I ran for the NY State Assembly which was last year. However apart from running as a candidate or even supporting other candidates whom I supported, I never was drawn to the power of advocacy.
A few weeks ago, however, David Steinberg from NORPAC, an advocacy group for the state of Israel, invited congregants from my shul (and from all over NY) to join the organization in their annual trip to Washington D.C. to speak to Congressmembers and Senators on Israel's behalf. Both of my parents brought me up with an awareness towards Israeli politics but with a certain fatalism, as I explained earlier, that for many years I felt a certain emotional paralysis as a lay person, to have an impact on American policy toward Israel. The suggestion was always out there, of course, to advocate to legislators for Israel but somehow I always saw it in black and white terms - either the politician understands Israel and its struggle or he or she doesn't.
Mr. Steinberg was convincing however, so I signed up for the NORPAC trip. I learned new things from the educational material that NORPAC disseminated about Israel's military technological achievements and medical trauma experience and how that has benefited even our own military and terror response capabilities. I learned that both Israeli and American technology created the Iron Dome, an anti missile defense system and that Israel invented a new type of bandage for medics, making them more efficient in stopping bleeding, that America has adopted. Also that armored plates under personnel carriers that tend to explode outward, when hit with an IED, is something that Israel came up with. More sensitive IED detection devices is another Israeli contribution..
I never knew before this trip that Israel had given Boston General Hospital a training course before the Boston Marathon bombing in dealing with the aftermath of a terrorist attack both in how to triage victims and how to extract shrapnel from wounds. This training is being credited for saving the lives of all 170 severely injured patients who came to Boston Marathon after the bombing!
I felt strength coming to D.C. as part of a big group, estimated at 1,000, to engage senators and congressmembers about their legislation. I derived confidence being a part of the small group of advocates, Rabbi Yoel Schonefeld among us as our leader, because we were well prepared. I was impressed with the group's ability to impart detailed knowledge and subtle advocacy points to the legislators or their aides in an easy and natural manner.
I felt proud of myself when we were in Congressman, Louie Gohmert's office. Mr. Gohmert is a tough talking right wing Republican from Texas. He is a great supporter of Israel in sentiment but his extreme ideological support may be tipping him over to a misguided approach.
Among the bills and commitments that we were to ask him for his support, were 1) Tougher sanctions on Iran to coerce it to forego its nuclear weapons program and 2) Continued financial aid for Israel. He said "no" to each one of these even as he spoke with great concern and respect for the State of Israel. So how could this be? His reasoning goes, on the first point, that tougher sanctions are still sanctions and tend to distract from the real deterrent, namely, military intervention. On the second point, Gohmert doesn't want to continue financial aid to Israel because in the same bill is a commitment for financial aid to Egypt. He doesn't believe in funding the Muslim Brotherhood administration which Morsi is a part of.
NORPAC suggests that its advocates not argue with a legislator when he/she doesn't agree to sign on to a bill but I felt that I could come to Congressman Gohmert from a position of respect. I told him that I could feel that his ideology and heart were in line with ours but I made the argument that President Obama indeed heads the current administration and the Senate has a Democratic majority. This reality dictates that sanctions will continue for some time still, whether the Republicans agree with them or not. Similarly, Obama and the Democrats, and frankly even some Republicans will say that foreign aid should continue to Egypt, tied to Israel aid or not. Waiting for a military-only option stance on Iran and non funding for Egypt as long as the Muslim Brotherhood is connected to Egypt's government, are ideals that may not ever happen. "Meanwhile," I said, "we can't let 'perfect be the enemy of good' ".
Congressman Gohmert looked at me, pausing somewhat to speak, seemingly to reconsider but then said that he still stands behind his votes. He needs to make a stand to shake things up, was his explanation. Our group left on good terms with him (He wouldn't stop talking to us :)) and he gave me a hardy handshake. "I know your heart but I can't do what you're asking" he said. I told him "I know your heart too and thank you for what you're doing!". I felt, that he truly was doing what he felt was the best he could for the state of Israel. (which he said will survive everyone). I felt proud of myself that I was able to present an argument to a U.S. congressman which gave him pause to reconsider his legislation, the effect of which could benefit Israel in the future, if not now. I felt really gratified having made this trip.
My parents came from a time and place where political expression was suppressed but in all honesty, it's
also true that at that time the Jewish "Kehila" felt that it's best to keep to yourself and not make any waves about anything. Even the German Jews, who were notably more educated than the rest of the European Jewry, did not take on the responsibility of educating their broader society to moral perils, even prior to Hitler's rise. This is the history from which our own "kehila" derives. In my opinion and in the opinion I have heard from others, our own community has much further to go to unite and affect the political process, both on the local and national levels.
More Jews should sign up to NORPAC and AIPAC type organizations. More frum Jews should register and vote and especially encourage our young generation to register and vote thereby determining who our political leaders are. Once registered, it can not be overstated how important it is to vote in Primaries where, invariably, winners are determined. In parts of NY city, such as in our district, where Democrats have governed for the last 30 years or so, those who want to register as Republicans must ask themselves whether giving up the right to choose our political leaders in the Democratic Primary, for the sake of symbolism (hailing the Republican flag) is really worth it. Being registered as a Democrat does not preclude voting for a Republican in the General election, if there is a Republican candidate. In that case, as a community activist friend of mine would say, there could be 2 bites of the apple: 1) in the Democratic Primary and 2) in the General election.
I have heard it said many times that politics is "dirty". This declaration is exaggerated and quite frankly comprises a cop-out position. Even choosing a lesser evil would still be an accomplishment. If a Hitler type were running against a dictator who was not as brutal, it would still behoove us to vote for the lesser evil! Here in America, however, in this day and age, thank G-d we don't have such pathetic options. Politicians, such as Joe Lieberman, Kelly Ayotte, Lindsay Graham, John McCain and many more, are sincere and hard working.
As a community we should promote political education and discussion as well as voter registration drives. Tremendous good is accomplished through community blood drives as well as our community based Hatzalah initiatives. NORPAC's trip was a successful community event. Similarly, the community should annually hold registration drives and why shouldn't Kew Garden Hills not have a frum based political action committee? The array of political issues and values are far and wide. Moral majorities and even religious minorities should make their voices heard on many issues to benefit themselves and the community at large. Ethical people have always shaped the world and the frum community, with its solid values, should not shirk from its role in shaping the political landscape.