BY MATT FRANZBLAU
Federation Communications Director
In early June, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch of Etz Chaim Synagogue joined the Orthodox Union's Advocacy Center for its annual mission trip to meet with lawmakers and high ranking politicians in our nation's capital. Rabbi Fisch was the lone clergy member from the northeast and central Florida regions to make the journey in hopes of conveying his thoughts and opinions on a host of issues, ranging from energy efficiency to the pressing matter of the United States' negotiations with Iran and its nuclear program. The group of approximately 100 had a full slate of meetings and eating engagements with policy officials on the agenda, including a sit down with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.
"We were actually thanked many times by the lawmakers for taking the time to come to Washington because they say it's important for them to hear from citizens directly," Fisch said about his most intimate and impactful trek to Washington. "They encouraged us to keep speaking up because ultimately they have to answer to their constituents and they want their constituents to speak loud and strong on this."
The Rabbi's day began in the house of representatives where the OU met with individual members of the legislative body. It then continued with a talk from Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, who is also a native Floridian, born in Miami beach. The group was then treated to a Glatt Kosher lunch in the senate, where it heard from a number of prominent politicians throughout the meal, including New York senator Chuck Schumer, who said the country's pending negotiations with Iran was possibly the single most important vote he will participate in during his 40 plus years in congress.
In addition to the topic of Iran, Fisch and his cohorts were also able to speak at length about two other points of legislative action currently in front of U.S. lawmakers. The first was the Nonprofit Energy Efficiency Act, which is a bill aimed at providing grants to organizations such as the Orthodox Union in order to cut down on their energy costs and helping preserve the environment in the process.
The second had to do with the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which through the Department of Homeland Security provides grants upwards of $75,000 to nonprofit entities in order to better train their staff and better secure their facilities.
"We were there to speak about the concerns those in our communities have about security," Rabbi Fisch explained. "This program is slated to be severely downsized so we really wanted the lawmakers to know that this is something we need in order to worship in comfort," he added.
Originally the program was given $25 million to work with when it was created in 2005, but it is scheduled to be scaled back to just $13 million in funding. This initiative was spearheaded by the Orthodox Union together with the JFNA when it was established a decade ago.
The capstone experience of the trip then took place in the afternoon when Rabbi Fisch, along with fellow members of the delegation were able to talk with President Obama's chief of staff about the United States' ongoing negotiations and eventual vote on a nuclear deal with Iran.
"We really emphasized to the lawmakers and the White House the concerns that we have," Fisch said. "We didn’t just say in theory that we need a good deal with Iran but we emphasized that all the mainstream pro Israel organizations came around and offered five bullet points that we are insisting be included in the final deal."
Those five pillars for what the OU and its partners would see as a good deal include anytime and anywhere inspections, phased sanction relief, having Iran provide the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with a complete report in its past nuclear activities in addition to the capability of dismantling the country's machinery and lastly the duration of a brokered deal.
"We really found that both members of the house and the senate were very receptive to this," he added. "They are looking at it very seriously and it was reassuring to hear at least the President's chief of staff saying that we were being well represented and that they were not going to just sign a deal for the sake of signing a deal."
Fisch and his peers were not the only ones in attendance that day who viewed this matter with a sense of urgency as members from congress spoke about what threats a nuclear Iran would pose to the U.S.
"Iran has something called ICBM which stands for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, which can be outfitted with nuclear warheads," he explained. "They don't need ICBM's for Israel because it is on the same continent but they are making them so that they can reach America, so it was encouraging to see how seriously they are taking it and it also gives us a big sense of responsibility that we should be engaged advocates in this process."
Following the important talks surrounding Iran, Fisch and the rest of his group were treated to dinner, where the French ambassador to the States, Gerard Araud spoke about what French authorities are doing to combat the rise of anti-Semitism in the country.
Once Rabbi Fisch arrived back in Jacksonville, he had time to reflect on his most impactful journey with some of our nation's most influential men and women.
"It's important for us to realize there are 535 members of congress, so we have to advocate to all 535 because these men and women are going to be voting on the P5+1 deal within a couple months," he explained. "OU's mission is to enhance Jewish life, so one aspect of that is advocating in Washington or at state governments for the interest of the Jewish community and it was an honor to take part in those efforts," he added.
For more information about the Orthodox Union's Advocacy Center, it's mission and its recent activity, go to advocacy.ou.org.