(The CCAR “Gang of Ten”: Rabbis Michael Namath, Baht Weiss, Sam Gordon, Esther Lederman, Greg Litcofsky, Ari Margolis, David Adelson, RAC Deputy Director Rachel Laser, and Seth Limmer)
It started as a question: as part of our Rabbis Organizing Rabbis campaign for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, would colleagues be interested in journeying to Washington, D.C. for a Rabbinic Lobby Day on Capitol Hill? If so, would Senators and their staffs be willing to meet with national representatives of CCAR, even from out of state? If so, would we as rabbis be able to make any impact on the success of the legislation’s passage through Congress?
The answer to all these questions, I discovered on our first Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Lobby Day, is a resounding: YES.
May 22 was an auspicious date for many reasons. We knew it was one of the final days Senators would be in town before their June recess. We knew we had a team of ten colleagues taking trains, planes and automobiles to meet up at our Religious Action Center. But we didn’t realize that late in the evening on May 21 the Senate Judiciary Committee would vote S. 744 [the bi-partisan bill for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, or CIR] out of committee by a margin of 13-5. When we entered the halls of Congress, our Senators all knew that a vote on CIR was coming their way.
After a thorough prep session at the RAC, our day began by meeting Senator Daniel Bennet [D-CO], one of the members of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” who championed CIR. Led by David Saperstein (and together with our allies from the UUAA) we thanked Senator Bennet for his leadership, asked him how we could help ensure the passage of the Bill, and charged him (as he was happy to hear) to “get this work done”.
From that session, our own CCAR “Gang of Ten” fanned out over Capitol Hill to meet in smaller groups with the offices of seven key senators. We heard interesting messages from two other members of the Gang of Eight with whom we met: Dick Durbin [D-IL] charged us to help secure the vote of his IL colleague, Mark Kirk [R-IL]; Robert Menendez directed our focus to the House of Representatives, where his staff feels this legislation will face serious and sustained opposition. Angus King [I-ME] also reiterated a call to ensure the overwhelming passage of CIR in the Senate to put real pressure on the House.
Our teams also scheduled appointments with Senators whose previous statements and records led us to believe we would have to work hard to gain their support. In many ways, it was in these sessions where the real learning of the day took place, and where the greatest optimism was found. Joe Donnelly [D-IN], heavily influenced by the support the Catholic Conference of Bishops has put behind CIR, was encouraged to hear more faith groups speak of the moral arguments for the legislation he is leaning to support. His colleague, Dan Coats [R-IN, who had expressed dismay for President Obama’s DREAM act], turns out to be focused on the realism of CIR’s border-security measures, but seeks a comprehensive solution and is very open to the possibility of supporting S. 744. (Coat’s Legislative Director especially asked us to be vocal on the issue of why this bill didn’t provide “amnesty”, as that was the biggest negative public perception he felt his office needed to overcome.) Kay Hagan [D-NC], one of five Democrats who voted against the DREAM act, wouldn’t commit to a position, as she faces re-election in a state turning towards the other party. It was curious that we felt more encouraged by our meetings with “swing” Republicans than Democrats…..
The most interesting meeting of the day was with the office of Mark Kirk [R-IL]. The importance of Kirk’s leadership in widening the bipartisan support for CIR could be crucial, we had been told when meeting with Durbin’s staff. So it was with great hope and a sense of urgency that Chicago’s own Rabbi Sam Gordon began our session setting forth a compelling case. As conversations continued, we learned that Senator Kirk was open to supporting S. 744, and potentially even inclined to do so. The early and vocal advocacy of the faith community, we were told, was a large reason why. As the meeting became more and more encouraging, I felt emboldened to share the following with the Senator: thanks to Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, we already have a network of sixteen committed colleagues throughout Illinois who are poised to come out and support and help Senator Kirk arrive at (and keep to) the right vote on this issue. Sam Gordon listed the many cities in which Rabbis Organizing Rabbis can really make a very public difference for the Senator, and Kirk’s people widened their eyes at the opportunities, took business cards, and pledged to be in touch.
I learned a lot from a tremendously full day in D.C. From Rachel Laser and the RAC Staff, I learned how important it was, before going to Wasington, to advocate publicly on a local level (I was fortunate enough to have an Op-Ed published on Immigration Reform in the Jewish Week). Sitting with Senators and showing them my public commitment and leadership definitely made a difference. From my Just Congregations community organizing training I learned how having people on the ground in states gave us greater power and opportunity when talking with Senators. From the Senators and staffers with whom we shared such fascinating conversations, I came to understand how much of a real difference it makes in the policy and legislation of our nation that we as rabbis went door-to-door on Capitol Hill.
And, lastly, I learned how invigorating it was to walk through the halls of Congress with my colleagues, making a real difference in the governance of our country and the ways its people are able to enjoy justice, peace and civil liberties. I can’t wait to do it again.
Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, New York.